We like to make events out of premiers. The opening weekend of movies, we track how many millions of dollars of revenue they bring in (compared to how many hundreds of millions they required to produce). When a world or national premier of a play occurs, we like to catch the first run before the original cast moves on to other roles. What would you call a premier of a play which has not been staged since 1607? The Blackfriar Theatre has produced the American Premier of Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the Exchange, and probably the only known production of the pay in the past 400 years.
The Fair Maid of the Exchange lines up in the sequence of love-farces spanning from the Italian commedia dell’arta continuing through Sheridan’s School for Scandal and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The essential elements of this genre were love objects, love triangles, and a social class with enough time and finances to pursue the former. Having a few rogues and scoundrels fills out the cast.
The plot basics in The Fair Maid of the Exchange include three brothers, Ferdinand Golding (Tim Sailer), Anthony Golding (Jessika Williams), and Frank Golding (Grant Davis) who all profess love for Phyllis Flower (Ginna Hoben). Her parents, Master Flower (David Anthony Lewis) and Mistress Flower (Allison Glenzer) negotiate with different brothers to exchange their daughter for prospects future prestige and prosperity. A money-lender, Master Berry (John Harrell) and his daughter, Moll (Lauren Ballard) fund and demand payments from various gallant and gentlemen. All of these suitors and merchants are rather inept, except for their ability to hire Cripple (Benjamin Reed), who provides them with designs, love letters, and directions on how to seek their rewards.
For two hours, in rhyming verse, these buffoons spoon, swoon, rant, and rave. Their antics become more frantic and frenzied as their designs and deceptions become more entangled. The only characters who can unravel this ball of strings is the Cripple, who has been weaving them around each other, and Master Flower’s clown, Fiddle (Chris Johnston). Society’s misfits put all right in the end, but are left on the periphery of whatever bliss might actually ensue when the curtain falls.
Beyond academic interest in uncovering and reconstructing a dusty manuscript from 400 years ago, why do we produce plays that have long been forgotten? Do we see a connection to our own sit coms and chick-flick movies? Do we still struggle with the themes of how class and gender affect our affections (this fair maid is certainly up for exchange by someone in the play)? Do we enjoy the odd sounding patterns (to our speech patterns) of rhyming poetic dialogue? Or, are we out for an evening of hilarious laughs at outlandish situations, audience participation, and costumes?