Fair to Middlin'
“Bartholomew Fair New Jersey: a Comedy in Verse” written and directed by Billy Mitchell.
Part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival.
MainStage Theatre, 312 W. 36 St., NYC.
July 17- July 28, 2009. 5 Performances. Schedule varies.
Tickets and information: 866-811-4111, www.midtownfestival.org or bartholomewfairnj.com.
by Glenda Frank
There are secrets to baking a great cake. You begin with a tested recipe, add fresh, interesting ingredients, watch the time, and keep alert for that tell-tale aroma, better than a timer to indicates that the feast can begin.
It’s the same with a play, and The Theatre Company in its production of “Bartholomew Fair New Jersey: a Comedy in Verse” was off to an auspicious start by adapting one of Ben Jonson’s four great comedies to the 1980s. The talented Billy Mitchell, author and director, wrote his version in lively couplets, some of them quite witty and adept. His actors – at least in the Induction – delivered them with true panache. In an evening of short scenes from various productions, the Midtown International Theatre Festival included the Induction as a lure. The trailer promised such riches that I immediately booked my seat.
The original “Bartholomew Fair” was a satire with a genial close. By 1614, Jonson had learned to temper his pen and choose small targets. In 1597, he was imprisoned for "leude and mutynous behavior" for the satire “The Isle of Dogs,” which implicated Queen Elizabeth herself in contemporary scandals. In 1605, he landed in jail again for co-authoring “Eastward Hoe,” which offended King James I. Knaves, scoundrels, hypocrites and fools inhabit “Bartholomew Fair” and “Bartholomew Fair, New Jersey, ” and they are cleverly named. In Mitchell’s update John Littlewit (Mark Dunn), the bumbling Justice of the Peace, is married to Win Littlewit (Courtney Kochuba). Possum, Wasp, Grace, Fat Neck Jackson (Benjamin Holmes), Willy Thunder and Joan Trash wander in and out of the fair stalls.
Dame Lovecraft (Leticia Diaz), Littlewit’s widowed mother-in-law, is courted by two men but chooses to wed a third, a young man (Philip Corso) who sheds his clothes whenever possible. This is easy satire, but director Mitchell didn’t play enough with it. The dame was neither puritanical nor prurient – and either tried-and-true direction would have led to laughter at her pretensions and her choice. Many other opportunities for comedy were passed up.
The delights I had anticipated were there, for about 30 of the 85 minutes. The benefit of adapting a classic text is that you can spot the weaknesses and missing links and correct them, adding your own innovations and updates. It soon became apparent that too many of Jonson’s seventeenth century dramaturgical flaws remained. There is no plot to speak of, too many characters, political satire that is mostly lost on us now, and few of the modern lures – like a villain or irony – we’ve come to expect. By the last few scenes all that was left were bad wigs, Jersey accents, barely distinguishable sock puppets, and improbable love knots. The cast worked increasingly hard in their multiple roles but to decreasing effectiveness, and the whole began to look like children’s theatre gone amok. I had lost my willing suspension of disbelief after forty minutes, and there were no compensations: shoe-string budget costumes, no set, broad acting, and a script with holes that the pratfalls didn’t fill.
Despite this, there were moments – such as the “Bruce Jovi” insert, where a long-haired pop star with guitar sang “Born in Jersey/Everyone’s a player” – that offered a glimpse of where this show might go with more work and higher production values.