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The Fair Maid of the West
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2017-08-09

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Playwright: Thomas Heywood, adapted by Kevin Theis. At: Oak Park Festival Theatre in Austin Gardens, 167 Forest Ave., Oak Park. Tickets: $30. Runs through: Sept. 2

Thomas Heywood's sword-and-cloak extravaganza was a blockbuster in 1631, but then faded from popularity until 1986, when Trevor Nunn turned it into a swashbuckling pageant for England's Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1994, Kevin Theis adapted the two-part action-adventure yarn for Chicago's CT20 troupe, where it received one of the first Jeffs for Stage Combat ever awarded. Now, nearly 25 years later, the Fair Maid of the West sails again, not over the bounding main, but through the bosky confines of Austin Gardens.

Fans of theaters-in-the-park can attest to the mixed pleasures of sweet-smelling greenswards mingled with the noise of automobile traffic and airplanes overhead. To ensure that every playgoer keeps step with the complicated plot, Theis makes the most of his text's "asides"—speeches delivered directly to the audience—to render us always cognizant of the circumstances leading the courageous and chaste Bess Bridges to don male attire and take to the sea in search of her fugitive swain, her mission aided by shrewd Captain Goodlack, swaggering bully Roughman and impish innkeeper Clem.

The first act ends with a devastating storm following a fierce battle with Spanish pirates, during which the companions suffer losses and triumphs, but earn praise from their enemies. The second act opens with their ship wrecked on the foreign coast of Fez and our heroes taken prisoner by its Sultan-King Mullisheg, where their escape is later facilitated by selfless oaths discharged at great sacrifice, a comedic "Bed Trick" in the prudish Shakespearean mode and more clashing steel. The Fezian hosts, by the way, are depicted as Panto-style "exotics," sporting dialects ranging from the court major-domo's Appalachian twang to Queen Tota's Natasha-Fatale Muscovite. Audience members are also entreated during the course of the performance to wave flags and hurl projectiles.

Director Theis and Stunt Choreographer Geoff Coates—both alumni of the 1994 production—keep the thrilling spectacle forthcoming at dizzying velocity, thanks to an acting ensemble, led by Amanda Forman as the worthy commander Bess, that swarms over Michael Lasswell's three-level jungle-gym towers with the agility of squirrels and the stamina of racehorses, while still retaining enough lung power for affirmations of loyalty and bravado. "These English are in all things honorable!" declares King Mullisheg. What churlish knave would disagree?


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