Review: Elizabethan Domestic Tragedy Arden of Faversham Turns In Some Surprisingly Big Laughs

An anonymous play that Shakespeare may have helped pen is running at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

Veronica Falcón as Widow Green and Zach Fine as the servant Michael in Red Bull Theater's production of Arden of Faversham, directed by Jesse Berger.
Veronica Falcón as Widow Green and Zach Fine as the servant Michael in Red Bull Theater's production of Arden of Faversham, directed by Jesse Berger.
(© Carol Rosegg)

No one knows for sure who wrote the 1592 play Arden of Faversham. Christopher Marlowe is a suspect, and so is Thomas Kyd, but many scholars also believe that William Shakespeare had a hand in it, at least in part. It's an interesting theory about a play that doesn't get much love on American stages, but Red Bull Theater's current laugh-out-loud funny production, now running at the Lucille Lortel, proves that this work had at least some half-way-decent playwright behind it.

Red Bull bills the show as a "true crime thriller," which is a bit of a stretch by modern standards. But it is based on a true tale of a domestic murder in which a wife and her lover hatch a plot to get rid of her husband. Director Jesse Berger and adapters Jeffrey Hatcher and Kathryn Walat mined the play for comedic nuggets and found loads of them. Without too much tinkering, they lightened the domestic tragedy aspects (Arden is often credited with being the first of the genre) and leaned into noir-like comedy, with amusing plot twists and mistaken identities that make for murderously fun intrigue and mayhem.

The plot follows a housewife named Alice (Cara Ricketts) who decides to do away with her wealthy landowner husband, Arden (Thomas Jay Ryan), with her paramour, Mosby (Tony Roach). Greed is not the motive here (Alice comes from money), but unadulterated lust is. How much nicer it would be, they think, not to have to worry about Arden walking in on them canoodling. After her own failed attempt to poison him, Alice enlists the services of no fewer than three conspirators: servant Michael (a hilarious Zach Fine), who is swayed to assist because of his love for Mosby's sister, Susan (Emma Geer); the painter Clarke (Joshua David Robinson), who also loves Susan; and the disgruntled Widow Green (Veronica Falcón), who's all too happy to get her revenge on the man who took her land. All working independently, these three go about plotting the demise of the unsuspecting Arden.

Directing all this madness in the style of a campy caper, Berger revels in the play's abundant comical potential, which is given a noirish fillip with Reza Behjat's sultry lighting and Greg Pliska's suspenseful music. Adding to the show's tongue-in-cheekiness is Thom Sesma as Franklin, whose unrequited love for his dear friend Arden goes unnoticed by everyone except the audience. Two murderous thugs, Big Will (David Ryan Smith) and Shakebag (Haynes Thigpen), hysterically round out the terrific cast as bunglers who end up attempting to kill the wrong person and then brag about it after. The whole thing does look a lot like Shakespearean clowning.

Fortunately, the language is relatively straightforward for an Elizabethan play. Hatcher and Walat have judiciously updated a character or two and gotten it all down to a rollicking two hours with intermission. Scenic designers Christopher and Justin Swader stick with a 16th-century setting with an Elizabethan-style interior for Arden's home, and costume designer Mika Eubanks follows suit with her period-inspired togs.

It's no spoiler to reveal that Arden gets it in the end. Even though it doesn't seem likely that much else of this true crime thriller is actually true, the play is ultimately less about the ending than the tomfoolery that gets us there. Whether Shakespeare wrote it or not, Faversham deserves a visit.