TheatreNOW’s latest offering, “The Bard’s Broads” by Anthony David Lawson, is a hilarious romp through Elizabethan England. To begin with, the script is really built for the conceit of dinner theatre. The somewhat loose story is set at The Dirty Quill, an English pub presumably near the Blackfriars area toward the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, at the height of William Shakespeare’s popularity. (Things got a little dodgy for him after James came to the throne.)
The pub is managed by Bartholomew “Mule,” played by Lawson, who hosts the evening. He is ably assisted by three beautiful and ravishing young serving wenches, Desdemona (Kristina Auten), Ophelia (Anna Gamel), and Gertrude (Liz Bernardo), as well as his apprentice/indentured help, Phillip (Patrick Basquill). There is no fourth wall, at all; the stage is merely an extension of the bar and restaurant the audience is sitting in, and the players are the unfolding drama of the waitstaff, with all the classic soap opera that would entail.
Everyone is very excited because Master Will Shakespeare (Nick Reed) will be making an appearance that night at The Dirty Quill. He is, of course, their resident star and artist. The girls hang on him, Mule loves the business and cachet he brings, but Phillip, who is completely lovesick over Desdemona, is so jealous he could pop. Phillip is an accomplished musician and songwriter, but can he get any respect? No. Add into all this a playwright with a ridiculous sense of humor and a genuine love for Shakespeare, it’s a recipe for very intelligent humor.
For example, apparently Titus Andronicus is the cook at this particular pub. (During the main course while I was eating the vegetarian “Meat Pie,” Mule did nudge me and point out that with Titus as a cook, the vegetarian option was probably a good idea.) Allusions to Shakespeare’s greatest hits pepper the script, making it a veritable hilarious ride. Like Shakespeare, there are very bawdy, broad jokes which will appeal to people’s basest nature and smart, erudite, punny jokes that pique our intelligence. This is not a show for children or the easily offended.
Aside from the funny writing, what makes this show so enjoyable are the multiple opportunities for interaction with the cast while they are in character. During the breaks to serve each course, the performers sit down at the tables in the audience and converse. In Phillip’s case, it’s a lot of asking for advice about women. For the wenches, it’s flirtation time, which the men in the audience seemed to love. Of course it’s Mule who commands attention both on and off stage. The script offers a series of uncanny conversations and monologues as set-ups for Mule to respond to; Lawson does this with devastating, zinging humor. What the audience thinks, he does and says.
Basquill is blessed with a beautiful singing voice, plenty of charm, and more musical talent in one hand than most have in their whole bodies. He got cast as a lovelorn young singer in this show, which is to say he plays himself. I love any opportunity to listen to him sing, and for this show he accompanies himself on the guitar, which he informed us during the main course he was taught to play by a “Greek man in Macedonia.”
If his songs weren’t so bawdy (and they are filled with dirty puns and double entendres) his voice would make them lovely. It’s nice when live theatre can cast real musicians to play instruments instead of just miming while music is piped in on a stereo. The artistic director of Theatre NOW, Zach Hanner, has a long history of casting this way.
During the 1600s, the guitar spread across Europe, though not quite in the form we think of today (different number of strings). It’s a nice touch to include an instrument with a similar look and sound to the time period .
The wenches are far too much fun. Auten has an enthusiastic excitement of a young woman who discovers her sexual power to enjoy and control men. Pretty, manipulative, and certain that she is headed to the top (at least in bed), it’s hard not to root for her.
Gamel plays the comic relief with sheer joy and excitement. Exuberantly leaping about the stage, bouncing up and down as often as she talks, it’s like a bit of fairy energy comes whirling into the room. She plays “the dumb one,” but as tends to happen, the script gives her some wonderful set-ups with Lawson, like working in “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” She plays it perfectly straight like Gracie Allen would for George Burns.
Then comes the dark, brooding Liz Bernardo as Gertrude. She can read—an anomaly for serving wenches at the time—and realizes she is a person out of time and space dropped into a world where women are not valued for any intelligent contributions they could make. Her irritation is strong and clear.
Of course, everyone is curious about the “star” of the tavern scene: Master Will Shakespeare. When he finally does arrive, he completely expects to be treated as the most important person in the room and accepts it with grace and a charming smile. Reed has a bashful, tender smile that, when coupled with the gentleness about him, makes him very believable as an artistic type.
Dinner tastes as decadent as any had at TheatreNOW. The thick vegetable, chicken and barley pottage will bring oohs and ahhs, from many if judging by my visit. Being a fan of real soups, my date suggests the steaming portion, which comes with a slice of bread and real butter. The mixed green salad gets a palate brightening by a delightful peppery vinaigrette for those who wish to indulge on their greens.
The main course comes as a revelation (my date picked his carcass bare) with cornish game hen. Or for vegetarians—and in spite of the script’s conceit that Titus “cooked” the meal (ladyfingers jokes crept up at our table)—Chef Denise Gordon’s Cornish vegetarian pastry tastes like a rare treat. Complemented by root vegetables, the flavors are deep and earthy taste—a perfect for the beginning of fall. And the cocktails of the evening will titillate, too, such as “Desdemona’s Strawberry Wine”—pinot grigio, strawberries, mint and lemon. Great food, a funny show and good company will round out a perfect weekend night at TheatreNOW.
The Bard’s Broads
TheatreNOW, 19 S. 10th St.
Sept. 20-28 • Fri.-Sat., 7 p.m.