“Why are wicked men such good company?” This question, asked in The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen by Six Elements Theatre playing at Gremlin Theatre, has clearly attracted playwright John Heimbuch, who has offered us a tale that does much more than provide an answer.
Early eighteenth-century London is the setting for this cleverly-composed tale of the causes and practice of wickedness. Three seemingly incompatible chaps are assorted together to partake in highway robberies, each arriving on stage for different reasons. Part blackmail, part revenge, part avarice. It is no simple thing to absolve thieves and pirates, but we find out, once again, that for greed to be well-rewarded, it had better be firmly rooted in the turf of power.
The historical period was the scene of intense market speculation generated by wild financial maneuvering on the part of the British South Seas company in collaboration with the government. The mismanagement of the company brought the market to a crash, not before luring investors enthusiastically to buy its stocks.
While the three thieves took advantage of the financial bedlam and the wealth that ensued, and did not shy away from violence, they honored their mutual promises. No such gallantry on the side of the “thief-taker general” Jonathan Wild, played by Justin Alexander, the law-enforcement representative and himself a thief, who saw every interaction as financial opportunity and who dutifully abided by the bounty system.
Against the backdrop of these turbulent events, Heimbuch weaved a yarn of elaborate schemes, broken promises, deception, murder, and even reverse-gender roles. The play is homage not only to historical exploits (which all but demonstrate an affinity to our present demeanor) but also to the language depicting the deeds. The playwright is well-versed in the historical idiom and shares with us his pleasure at the force and the subtly of the language, making delightful use of the irony that the English, and the English language, are so adept at.
Given the ornate text, it is all the more heartening that director Jenna Papke and the troupe at Six Elements Theatre have delivered a performance that is as emotionally engaged as it is intellectually. Philip D. Henry is boisterous and ironic as the “professional” thief Jack Fowler. His performance demonstrates that experience and cunning can always meet their match and be surpassed, here in the character of Jonathan Wild, played assertively by Justin Alexander.
Samuel Heath, a would-be rich speculator and print shop owner represents the predicament of the time: greed and arrogance together with decent intentions and gullibility. Alex Cotant plays the role movingly, depicting increasingly the vulnerable in the scoundrel. Philip C Matthews is the forlorn, impoverished, and hesitant writer who clings to writing even as he bitterly knows literature will not put food on his table. Meredith Larson plays the rebel woman who connives against her bully fiancé, and James Tucker as the utterly corrupt attendant who understands nothing but money and force. The multi-purpose gallows is the crafty set, designed by Nic Hager, that artfully approximates the blurry lines between life and death, love and deception.
This is theatre that is enthralled by the enchantment of language and the recollection and recounting of history, and that reminds us that even if treachery is everywhere, our purpose and mission, and those of theatre, are to look for the lesser evil. We are the winners for having this captivating production to point us to this end.
The Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, by John Heimbuch. Directed by Jenna Papke. Set design by Nic Hager. Six Elements Theatre, October 20 – November, 3 2012. Performed at Gremlin Theatre, 2400 University Avenue West Saint Paul, MN 55114.
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