“Arden of Faversham,” a 1592 play that some speculate was written by Shakespeare, is an early example of a true-crime narrative, tracing the real murder of Thomas Arden by his wife and her lover. This production by Red Bull Theater aims for a contemporary parallel, but its staging, noirish and to the point, fumbles the original’s balladry and lands cold instead of coldblooded.
The story, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher and Kathryn Walat, has numerous gears, and they all seem to be turning in different directions. Shortly after being granted a lordly wealth of land, Arden (Thomas Jay Ryan) travels to London while bemoaning the fact that everyone knows his wife, Alice (Cara Ricketts), is cheating with the lowly tailor Mosby (Tony Roach). What’s less known, though not by much, is her plan to kill Arden, for which she separately recruits his servant, Michael (Zachary Fine, a comically anxious live-wire), and Clarke (Joshua David Robinson), a painter who knows of poison oils.
For fun, Alice pits Michael and Clarke against each other; whoever kills Arden first will get to marry Susan (Emma Geer), her maid and Mosby’s sister. For overkill, Alice brings onboard the Widow Greene (a Medusa-eyed Veronica Falcón) who, smarting after the recent loss of her land (to Arden) and husband (to death), hires two bumbling henchmen to go after her new landlord as well.
The plan humorously goes awry. And this production, staged by Jesse Berger at the Lucille Lortel Theater in Manhattan, doesn’t fare much better in its efforts to juggle Renaissance tragedy and crime noir, à la a Coen brothers-esque farce with feminist angles.
Some of the thematic retooling pays off, like the flipping of Widow Greene’s gender (from the play’s original male Farmer), creating a kindred desire between Widow Greene and Alice to survive in a male-dominated world. Reza Behjat’s lighting nicely evokes Old Hollywood crime.
Other updates, mainly playing up Alice’s agency and self-awareness, come with a price: We lose a caricature and gain a realistic portrayal, but cede the foundation upon which the initial narrative is built. In her portrayal of Alice, Rickett’s lust is palpable, but Alice and Mosby do not have a likable, or even pervertedly alluring, relationship, so their supposed crime of passion seems anything but that.
There’s not only discordance in Greg Pliska’s music, which flips from jazz to period music, but also in Mika Eubanks’s costumes: a thematic free-for-all that, in one scene, throws Arden’s pinstripe suit into battle with his wife’s heavily corseted get-up. With its high wooden beams, Christopher and Justin Swader’s appealing single set recalls both a Western hunting lodge and an Elizabethan thrust stage.
But in a story with as high a potential for farce, this “Arden” misses most opportunities to capitalize on its built-in momentum. Alice’s fits of rage, as she grows impatient with each failed murder attempt, should be funny for the audience. Yet Berger’s direction has little sense of comedic positioning or calibration. Alice’s outbursts, like the production, leave us feeling mostly indifferent.
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