WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE'S... we think
THE MERRY DEVIL OF EDMONTON

Monday, January 23, 7:30 pm

Lucille Lortel Theatre

121 Christopher St.

 

Directed by Ben Prusiner

Featuring Opal Alladin, Sheila Bandyopadhyay,  Alexander Carney, Dan de Jesus, Carson Elrod, Adam Green, Andrus Nichols, Sarah Rice, Rebecca S'manga Frank, David Ryan Smith, Derek Smith, Raphael Nash Thompson, Ryan Brooke Taylor, Sam Tsoutsouvas, Andrew Weems

This anonymously penned Elizabethan city comedy starts with a dark magician’s pact with the devil, setting in motion a wild tale of uproarious disguise and deception.

When Sir Arthur Clare forbids his daughter, Millicent, to marry the lover of her childhood, Raymond Mounchensey, he doesn't know how far they will go to stay together. Sir Arthur thinks the wealthy Frank Jerningham a better match, but Frank's friendship with Raymond will have him conspiring to help the lovers, not break them apart. Even a convent can't keep Millicent from eloping with Raymond. Beware, though, when the merry devil is involved... all merry hell may break loose!

 

NEW YORK PREMIERE...maybe 

The OBIE Award-Winning Revelation Readings series provides a unique opportunity to hear rarely-produced classic plays performed by many of the finest actors in New York.

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ABOUT THE PLAY

 

Why did The Merry Devil of Edmonton please so many people for so long? The anonymous play is short, disjointed and full of unexplained gaps, but there is no refuting its popularity and longevity. The comedy continued to be cited and performed long after it was first staged (probably in the 1590s) and it attracted many readers, since publishers brought out quarto of the play six times.  The King’s Men thought highly enough of the old play to perform it at the 1613 wedding celebrations of Princess Elizabeth to Frederick, Elector of Palatine, at the Jacobean Court; no one thought it too rustic or old-fashioned to appear alongside a more innovative offering, The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice.  According to Peter Kirwan, a specialist in the Shakespeare Apocrypha, in the reign of Charles I the play was included in a bound volume labeled “Shakespeare, Vol. 1” along with other plays, including the wildly popular Mucedorus. This early misidentification of The Merry Devil reflects its rough parallels with Shakespearean comedies (especially The Merry Wives of Windsor), but it also shows that just as soon as the First Folio defined the canon in 1623, efforts arose to mark certain anonymous plays as possibly Shakespearean. By the nineteenth century the attribution was dropped. Scholars have attempted to argue that Dekker or Drayton was the author, but their speculations have not been accepted.

 

What’s certain is that the play did not become famous because they thought Shakespeare wrote it. My hunch is that the play was much loved and quoted because of its nostalgic picture of an England that had vanished. The comedy is homely and unpretentious, like a favorite coat made of well-worn materials, a quality that held a distinctive appeal for city audiences full of strangers who came from places like Edmonton. In this play they met no foreigners or court fops, heard nothing but familiar places, taglines, and jests, and enjoyed a menu of poaching misadventures, drinking games, ghost sightings, true-blue friends, and foolish millers. Peter Fabell proves to be just another local, and kinder than most, a helpful friend rather than a selfish Faust. He promises to perform great things to help Millicent and Raymond, the beleaguered lovers, but we don’t see him carry them out. The edgiest aspect of Edmonton is its Catholicism. As if seated in Fabell’s magic chair, audiences could be transported safely back in time to the old religion and the landscape of pre-Reformation England, full of holy crosses, jolly priests named Sir John, and local nunneries headed by stern Prioresses. In this kind of time travel the Host’s zealous allegiance to the executed Duke of Norfolk is no treason, and even raises a smile. Forbidden rites are given ample air time. In a detailed scene the Prioress instructs an unwilling Millicent how to become a nun by spending her days repeating Latin prayers, attending mass, taking the divine sacrament, confessing, and scourging herself, practices long denounced as Satanic and pagan. The hotter Protestants may have been a bit irritated (or titillated) but the Catholics and recusants in the audiences may have had a different reaction to hearing this recital about the details of their faith. 

 

For the literary spectator the play has a magpie charm, since every other line or turn of plot seems to echo plays by Marlowe or Shakespeare. The author certainly shows a talent for selecting and weaving excerpts from these playwrights and from comic popular literature, including songs, tales, ballads, and jokes, to produce memorable passages of playing. The plot culminates a the long and crowded night scene, which aims to delight the audience with a snowballing sequence of seemingly random collisions, tricky maneuvers, and misunderstandings, in a skillful mashup of the grotesque, the farcical, the romantic, and the whimsical. The play’s power lies ultimately in collaborative playing, distinctive types, adept staging, and verbal byplay, punctuated by shouts of drunken laughter and comic asides. As you will sense from the reading tonight, this entertaining play relies on these arts, rather than trick chairs or fiery stage devils, to work its lasting magic.

 

- Pamela Allen Brown

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