I wouldn’t want to meet a Jacobean if The Bloody Banquet was their idea of drama. At the same time, I’m glad we have Brave Spirits Theatre to interpret and serve up this centuries-old cannibalistic romp for our oh-so-refined modern sensibilities.
Abandoned by stages since the 1600s and only recently attributed to co-writers Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Bloody Banquet is a compact tour, in verse, of human nature from the lofty to the depraved – as the blurb describes it, a mashup of “historical fantasy… erotic thriller… pastoral comedy… B-movie horror.” Carefully and energetically staged in the narrowest of aisle setups by co-directors Casey Kaleba and Charlene V. Smith, this is a work that certainly gives you a lot to chew on.
The plot may be complicated, as political revenge tragedies of that time could be, but the program offers a handy synopsis, and the actors, direction, and costuming (by Carmel Clavin and Melissa Huggins) do a consistent job of helping us keep the relationships straight. And, ultimately, it matters little that the story is built on a backdrop of wars and alliances and unrequited romances – it all comes down to two plots. One concerns the sexual intrigues of courtiers in the palace of Armatrites (Matthew Edwards) and overflows with heavy make-outs, blood, and chicken legs. The other concerns an usurped royal family trying to reunite in the forest, and takes up less time and is less interesting except in how starkly its drama contrasts with the bombast of the court plot.
The performances are uniformly excellent; everyone finds a middle ground between committing too much to the alien mores of the play’s original era and taking too many asides to wink at the audience. They make the sick parts all the sicker by playing the characters’ anguish straight, then pull back and nudge an elbow at the audience just when we start to worry it’s getting too serious.
The Bloody Banquet
by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker
Directed by Casey Kaleba and Charlene V. Smith
Details and tickets
Jill Tighe is benighted with lust yet somehow heartbreaking as Armatrites’ second wife (who gets no name in the script!). Gray West is a ridiculously spoiled yet inexplicably capable Jacobean pick-up artist as Tymethes, son of the usurped king and guest at Armatrites’ court. Natasha Gallop sheds some honestly moving tears as Armatrites’ daughter Amphridote, oddly enamored of Tymethes. Hannah Sweet is piquantly pragmatic as servant/sex-arranger Roxana, and Ryan Dalusung is somehow both conniving and hapless as Armatrites’ follower Mazeres, until he’s suddenly and unexpectedly worth caring for. As Armatrites himself, Edwards is terrifying to the point of hilariousness, and then he goes and doubles (as much of the cast does) in another part, and makes for a raucous Clown with some choice words about DC archetypes in a clever little update of the script.
Naturally, nearly every character is doomed, and all the actors die their death scenes with aplomb.
On a deeper level, what makes all this work is that the company embraces all the ways it doesn’t work. To put it plainly: this story is absolutely oozing with misogyny. It’s no one’s fault but history’s; the company doesn’t try to hide it, since it would require total denial of the text to do so. What they do instead is layer a more contemporary viewpoint on top, and let the men (particularly Tymethes) be total hypocrites, for our amusement and gratification. The experience is one of being lurched back and forth, between “Aww! That poor King, separated from his Queen and babies!” to “These are terrible people! Ugh!” to “I don’t know why she’s sad that her terrible lover died, but she’s making me weirdly sad too,” to “These are terrible people! Awesome!” and back again.
It really feels like an exercise in letting it all hang out in a way that we just don’t get to have nowadays outside of the occasional Titus Andronicus. Not for anyone who wants to take a single moral lesson from the actual story presented, The Bloody Banquet is really more of a meta-entertainment, where we are as entertained by how disturbed we are, disturbed at how entertained we are, and, just for a few moments in between, worried about some hungry babies.
Oh, and due accolades to whichever unnamed props designer put together the body parts.
Important note for show-hopping Fringegoers: the show is advertised as running 90 minutes, but came closer to 2 hours on opening night.