A large cast of eccentric characters and a convoluted plot involving mistaken identities, a traveling troupe of itinerant actors, sailors, a deserted wife, a lascivious pastor and a virtuous Quaker- Wild Oats has it all, insofar as 18th century audiences were concerned. To judge by this show, too much was simply not enough in those days, and this antic soap opera is a good sample of the fare offered to those long-ago theatregoers.
I’m a big fan of bringing historical theatre to modern audiences, even if sometimes it’s a tough sell commercially. Chesapeake Shakespeare has gone out on a limb with this little-known 1791 comedy by playwright John O’Keefe, so if you’re looking for a lark of an evening that doesn’t involve heavy Shakespearean tragedy making your brain cells hurt, then Chesapeake Shakespeare has you in mind.
In his day, John O’Keefe’s plays were the equivalent to Neil Simon – light entertainment, suited to the masses and the nobility alike, with gentle wit but harming no-one. Jokes are painted wide, with the wordsmiths’ equivalent of an artist’s brush, no, make that a housebrush- never mind, forget the paintbrush analogy, they’re using a roller for some of these jokes.
Modern audiences will find that most characters are constructed rather two dimensionally: some are heroic, some comic, some have almost no character traits at all but are merely Sailors or Landlord. It doesn’t really detract from the fun, but make no mistake- this ain’t Shakespeare, folks.
Still, it’s a well paced show, if a trifle overlong in Act 1, and it may take you a while to glom onto who is who in the cast. No matter how well versed you are in historical theatre, you’ll be bound to miss some of the jokes – famous actors of the day are skewered here, along with liberal quotes from some of their most famous (but now mostly forgotten) works. You’ll recognize most Shakespearean quotes, no doubt, and the fact that those itinerant actors tossing the lines about are wont to steal from everyone. But sadly, methinks that much and many in-jokes of the time are lost in the years since 1791.
Director Ian Gallanar has done a good job of bringing this little-produced piece to life, though there’s no mistaking the fact that style, dramatically speaking, has moved on, and some of the overlong dialogue could have been cut with little loss to the show itself. There were several lovely moments in Act 2, with characters speaking directly to audience members, sometimes sitting next to them. One could wish for more of that lively and unexpected action interspersed more evenly within the show.
Vince Eisenstein, in the lead role of Jack, is an exceptionally gifted actor. You’ll thank yourself if you catch this fellow early in his career. His machinations are a delight to watch, and along with fellow leads Michael P Sullivan (Sir George Thunder) and Lizzi Albert (Lady Amaranth) provide some of the most watchable scenes. Laura Rocklyn is likewise a delight with her portrayal of Jane, the quintessential naughty farmer’s daughter, and it should be noted that her lowcountry accent was impeccable.
Rocklyn, as Dialect Coach, has embarked on a noble quest to bring us something other than Standard Highbrow English, otherwise known as Received Pronunciation. Much effort has been made to sprinkle various versions of 1700’s Hampshire Dialect amongst the cast, with varying degrees of success. Some of the cast succeed admirably at affecting what, to Baltimore ears, sounds like passable English accents, both refined and lowbrow. But alas and alack, among others only ended up sounding like an uneven mishmash of English/Cockney/Hobbit. Still, it’s nice to see the effort made. So often productions of period plays like this don’t even attempt to convey the sounds of the time, and Wild Oats really wouldn’t have quite the same punch with American accents.
As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, if you haven’t been to Chesapeake Shakespeare before, it’s well worth the trek to Baltimore just to step into their glorious new theatre. A modern interpretation of the original Globe Theatre, it has some of the most comfortable seating and the most relaxed atmosphere you could imagine, with the bars open throughout the show and not a bad seat in the house.
Wild Oats by John O’Keege . Director/Sound Designer: Ian Gallaner . Cast: Michael P. Sullivan as Sir George Thunder, Jack Novack as John Dory; Vince Eisenson as Jack Rover; Seamus Miller as Harry Thunder/Dick Buskin; Frank B Moorman as Zachariah/Honest Bob Johnson; Lizzie Albert as Lady Amaranth; Gregory Burgess as Ephriam Smooth; Daniel Flint as Farmer Gammon; Laura Rocklyn as Jane; Matthew Ancarrow as Sim; Dave Gamble as Banks; Lesley Malin as Amelia; Elliott Kashner as Lamp/Sailor; Robby Rose as Trap/Stingo/Toby/Officer; Tyler C Groton as Midge/Sailor; Davon Harris as Twitch/Sailor . Tecnical, Lighting and Scenic Designer: Daniel O’Brien . Costume Design: Jacy Barber . Dialect Coach: Laura Rocklyn . Properties: Mindy Braden . Produced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.