Chicago Medieval Players
at the Fine Arts Building
Think medieval theater, and the spectacle of the cycle plays may come to mind, or the Dionysian frenzy (so difficult to reproduce convincingly) of the Feast of Fools, or a pagan festival. Not all medieval theater required the cooperation of an entire town in the square, however, or involved Christ ascending to heaven (with the help of an elaborate pulley system) in the nave of a church. The more fortunate theatergoers could break the monotony of a long medieval winter with what is now known as chamber theater.
This was performed, aptly enough, in some chamber of the patron's home, with very little in the way of sets or lighting and only the patron's household and friends gathered to watch. The actors might be a traveling band, a troupe of locals, or household servants. The emphasis was often on light entertainment.
With Esmoreit, the Chicago Medieval Players deliver a gentle hour of light entertainment, much as it might've been staged in the early 15th century, the period of this Van Hulthem script. Of Dutch origin, the play takes place in the royal courts of Sicily (the south end of the cozy, candlelit room on the fourth floor of the Fine Arts Building) and Damascus (the north end). Prince Esmoreit (David Andrews), son of the king and queen of Sicily (Seth Jacobs and Laurie Sucher), is stolen as a baby by Robricht (Charles Berek), his jealous uncle, would-be heir to the throne. Esmoreit is sold to a Saracen (Beth McGreevy) and raised by the king of Damascus (Timothy Hutchings) to be a devout pagan. When Esmoreit discovers his true lineage, he reinstates himself as heir to Sicily and disposes of Robricht, winning a lady love (Sarah Ahmad) in the process. To pad the evening out a little, four very pretty medieval pieces are sung, accompanied by guitar and dulcimer.
Presented with the broad energy of children's theater, with much mugging and some slapstick, this Chicago Medieval Players staging by Fred Zimmermann is ably acted and, for the most part, enjoyable. In an effort to treat us to an authentic retelling, however, the company ignores or glosses over some of the ironies evident to a modern-day audience--including Esmoreit's quick and painless conversion to the Christian faith and the basic decency of his pagan family (whom he abandons) in comparison to the volatile if not downright villainous Christians. Van Hulthem's point of view here is not often found in medieval literature.
A program note explains that certain inconsistencies (mostly having to do with time and distance) in the text would not have concerned a medieval audience--citing Esmoreit's role as "entertainment, not edification." Still, it would have been interesting if the production had lingered over some of the ironies and pointed up the inconsistencies, because as theater Esmoreit is pretty fluffy, even a little thin at times. Most of its interest lies in its history, but we don't get any of that in this production. We have to draw our own conclusions about how a medieval audience might have received this play.