by SOPHIE KERMAN
Our language has changed quite a bit since 1613, but our sense of humor clearly has not. Sure, there are a whole lot of “forsooth”s in Thomas Middleton‘s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, but the characters it mocks are still alive and well today: the incessantly chattering gossips, the pretentious scholar spouting verbiage no one else understands, the freeloader who’s gotten a little too comfortable in a life with no work.
And I haven’t even mentioned the tragically ill-fated young lovers, who make this play a perfect companion piece to Romeo and Juliet, performed in repertory by the Classical Actors Ensemble at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage. By presenting these two plays in alternating performances, the CAE gives audiences an interesting choice: the classic tragedy, or the little-known comedy? I have not had the chance to see the former, but by opting for the latter, you’re in for a fun evening with no Shakespearean emotional baggage.
The play was originally meant as a satire of everything including social climbing, teen romance, the strict enforcement of Lent, and rampant baby-making, and director Joseph Papke revels in every situation’s comedic opportunities. Apart from the very first scene, which was oddly hard to follow, the giant 20-person cast keeps the jokes coming. Particular highlights are Joe Wiener as Mr. Allwit, who cheerfully allows himself to be supported by the deep pockets of his wife’s lover, and Dan Joeck in the comically fertile role of Mr. Touchwood the elder (although the character’s problems would be greatly reduced with the help of modern contraception). And while I did wonder why a comedy like Chaste Maid would need comic relief, Randall Funk and Michael Ooms strike gold with their scene as policemen patrolling for unauthorized meat during Lent.
The CAE has made some notable production design choices here, particularly in having brief musical interludes between each of the play’s five acts. This does prolong the play a bit, but the musicians are talented and their choice of familiar classics (including “Brother, can you spare a dime?” and Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”) feels well-suited to the play and provides an enjoyable breather from the ridiculous theatrical action. The modern-day costuming hits a snag in the case of the young lovers, who seem mismatched, with Mr. Touchwood the younger in a button-down shirt and Moll styled more like a thirteen-year-old. You get used to it, but Moll’s initial interactions with the sexually assertive Sir Walter Whorehound (Zachary Morgan) are uncomfortable to watch unless you remind yourself that actress Nissa Nordland is, in fact, a grown woman.
At two and a half hours, Chaste Maid isn’t short, but it is also never boring. Papke’s direction is quick-witted, and the seasoned ensemble does an excellent job conveying all of the raunchy subtext of their lines. One could fault the interpretation for being more ridiculous than satirical, but its absurdity is perfectly well-placed as a comic foil to Romeo and Juliet. For those who balk at going to a tragedy on a cold night – or if you like the idea of complementing Romeo and Juliet with a much more irreverent take on love and 17th-century society – Chaste Maid presents a silly, bawdy way to see a classic without having to work too hard.
A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, by Thomas Middleton, presented by the Classical Actors Ensemble. March 21-April 12, 2014 at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage, 711 W Franklin Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55405. Tickets start at $15 from: http://www.classicalactorsensemble.org/.