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Seventeenth-Century Pirates in Pasadena

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Vonessa Martin, James C. Leary and Katie Davies

The Furious Theatre Company is the luckiest little ensemble in town, having snagged a residency at the Pasadena Playhouse's balcony theatre at a time when companies are losing their spaces left and right. They've adventurously chosen to use their good fortune to explore a risky undertaking: a new adaptation and re-staging of seventeenth-century dramatist Thomas Heywood's The Fair Maid of the West, Parts I & II. We saw the Fair Maid last Sunday night, in a long, narrow theatre with ropes and rigging draping from the sides, and she's Furious, all right - furiously swashbuckling. Here be pirates.

Bess Bridges (Vonessa Martin) is the prettiest platinum blond barmaid in 1600s England, and Mr. Spencer (Shawn Lee) loves no other. The trouble is, of course, to test her virtue, and test it they do, through an elaborate series of stratagems. Gallants and buffoons duel like squirrels in the street. They fight over (and under) Bess with a lot of sword-brandishing, but she remains spotless. When Bess thinks Spencer is dead, she makes his best friend Captain Goodlack (a lusty James C. Leary) buy a ship, paint it all in black, and go on a doomed voyage to recover his body.

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Of course, Spencer isn't dead. After the intermission, they all end up shipwrecked on an island that Odysseus missed on his Cruise of Dangerous Small Bodies of Land. It's the island of the Pirate King and Queen (Richard Hilton & Kristy Nolen) and before these bar-crossed lovers can escape, they'll have to appease the royal couple's libido. Do they? Will they? Well, that's part of the excitement. This is an adaptation of a play that is close to Shakespeare's time but not written by him. It let us appreciate a period we all idolize, but we don't know how the plot's going to turn out. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, we're actually in some doubt about whether or not the Pirate King is going to ravish fair Bess.

An elaborate number of very well-staged swordfights add lots of banging, blood, and tumbling to the action. The fights were staged with the assistance of Sword Play Fencing Studios and Hollywood Sword Master Tim Weske, and his merry team of seven choreographers. (Who do we have to screw around here to get ourselves a team of seven choreographers?) We also really liked the use of direct address, and the way that the characters leap over the front wall like they're walking the plank to tell us their secret hopes and fears. One of the problems with proscenium-style Dollhouse theatre is that the actors seem not only distanced from the audience, but downright indifferent to them. It's nice to be noticed.

Although we and the audience spent two happy hours giggling at the posturing and the innuendo, Laist can't recommend this piece unreservedly. There's a real problem with the levels. Someone needs to turn down most of the sound cues, and some of the actors need to turn down their voices a few decibels. In our (deafened) opinion, when you take material like this and shriek at the top of your lungs, you're making fun of it - and when the audience thinks you're hurting your voice, they feel pain as well. Heywood intended his works to be comedies, not SNL sketches.

We amaze ourselves by saying this, because we've long been on record as an opponent of St*******skian acting. We like loud, exaggerated casts. But we wish more of the cast would take the example set by these two standouts: James C. Leary (Captain Goodlack) of Buffy fame, here polishing his wry Scottish chops, and the grandiose, dignified Kristy Nolen (1st Chorus, the Pirate Queen). Despite bellowing with the best of them, this pugnacious pair were the two cast members who genuinely transported us back to a seventeenth-century theatre.

Leary and Nolen's outrage at the various affronts to their characters' pride was not just good comedy - it was really good acting. We were afraid that if we didn't listen to them, they would stab us with their swords or choke us on a poisoned candy. (We were secretly hoping for them to get together at the end, but apparently that was one plot twist too many for Heywood and these post-Heywoodians. ) Martin, Lee, and others are also holding up their ends admirably, but in general, the volume keeps creeping up...and up...and up...

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To be fair to this hard-working ensemble, we can always blame the playwright for the volume issues. Heywood wrote the two halves of his play thirty years apart, in 1600 and 1630, with the aim of pleasing two exceedingly different monarchs and regimes. The first one is Elizabethan, the second Jacobean (Queen Elizabeth and King James, respectively) Director and co-adaptor Damaso Rodriguez (Leary is the other adaptor, which we think must have helped his performance tremendously) writes in his program notes:

The first part is a plot-driven series of events, the second part is a romantic sex farce. We took the best elements of both, incorporated Heywood's own prefaces to the plays, turned the villains into pirates and added a few extra sword fights.

Laist never, ever would have suspected that we were Jacobeans at heart, but we'll take the French-inspired sex farce with the bumbling pirate king over the boring Elizabethan quibbling about honor, duty, and courage any day. We also suspect that the adaptors' decision to "turn the villains into pirates," although humorous on a surface level, led to a certain shallowness of identification with the characters. An obsession with sex is a more universal historic quality than one with slapping people with gloves for offending you, and the actors have more fun in Part 2. Even the sword fights get more relaxed, as Bess's beau Spencer slays twenty swordsmen in one breathless battle.

We had a rollicking good time at the Fair Maid's tavern, and blasting Styx over the sound system at the end was the perfect touch of mayhem to a maniacal evening. The cast ominously warns of an upcoming Fair Maid of the West, Parts III & IV. We'll be there - as long as King James remains on the throne.

The Fair Maid of the West, Parts I & II performs Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7:30 pm through November 12 at the Pasadena Playhouse Balcony Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena, CA 91101. Tickets $15-$30. One discounted family matinee remains, tomorrow, Oct. 29, at 11 am. For reservations, call (626) 356-PLAY, or click here to purchase online. Free street parking is pretty easily available. Shiver yer timbers.