JOHANNE, TIB, JOHANNE
and ATTOWELL'S JIG We're Not Joust Theatre at Lawrence House
Why do people do theater? Find a script, find a space, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse, sew some costumes, build a set--why do it? It's a question that begs to be asked every now and then. And it's a question two companies, We're Not Joust Theatre and Chicago Medieval Players, really need to ask themselves.
The odds are stacked against them. Both are producing obscure 16th-century plays, both are staging them in odd, out-of-the-way locations, and both had very small houses when I attended. None of this would matter if the shows were really good. Good theater creates its own purpose. But these shows aren't good.
"Preserving the works" is not a good enough reason to do these plays. They're already well preserved inside a book jacket. There must be something in them--something that made them interesting enough to save for 400 years--that can capture the attention of contemporary audiences.
We're Not Joust Theatre's Johanne, Tib, Johanne, showing on the 14th floor of a north-side retirement home called Lawrence House, is, according to the program notes, intended to provoke reflection on traditional family values. Now, there's a reason to do a show. Get on the old bandwagon. Add to an already tired debate. Show that in medieval England wives cheated on their husbands--sometimes with priests--and that priests were not as celibate as some would like to believe.
The plot is based on such an affair, but it's actually beside the point of the play. Unfortunately, director Brian Winters and his cast (Thomas Reed, Andrea Salloum, and John Szadziewicz) haven't dug deep enough to find out what the point is. What makes this show interesting--and even worth producing now--is how the priest and Tib manipulate and abuse Johanne, the poor, stupid husband. If that manipulation were craftily done, this could make an entertaining, even thought-provoking play. But alas, there's no craft, and the play comes off as boring and pathetic.
Also on the bill is Attowell's Jig, another 16th-century comedy about coveting thy neighbor's wife, which fares no better under the direction of Salloum. The notion of cheating on your spouse is as old as sex itself and hardly interesting on its own. Again, what's interesting is how it's done. And this play too falls apart due to a lack of scene and character analysis. Maybe this is a learning experience for the members of We're Not Joust Theatre, who might more aptly be named "We're Not Quite Yet Theater."
Chicago Medieval Players at the Fine Arts Building
Both these companies love the notion of medieval theater. No one can knock them for that, but an infatuation with another era is not enough to produce a good show.
Thomas Simpson of Chicago Medieval Players is well versed in the historical context of Angelo Beolco's La Moscheta, an Italian Renaissance comedy that he translated and also directs. The play, another comedy about marital infidelity, even has some nice embellishments, like the clever introduction and the free authentic medieval refreshments served at intermission. But Simpson is more a scholar than a director. The group makes a serious, respectable effort, and the play comes close to hitting its mark. But it veers off at the last moment and almost crashes.
La Moscheta is staged in a small classroom on the fourth floor of the Fine Arts Building. Its biggest problem is that the acting is too large for the space. This play requires a large, bawdy style, and a large, bawdy style requires a large auditorium.
Simpson seems to have devoted most of his energy to translating Beolco's outrageous, vernacular Italian. Though the script has a definite shape, Simpson the director hasn't fine-tuned it to bring out the subtle ironies that make it worth producing.
None of the actors are bad. But they would come off better if they weren't sitting on top of the audience. William King is quite appealing as Menato the lover. Cathy Bieber gives a lot of depth to Betia, the woman everyone wants. And Olaf Hartwig is competent as Tonin the soldier. But Simpson allows Timothy Thillman to run away with the lead character, Ruzante, Betia's cowardly, impotent husband. Neither Simpson nor Thillman took the time to bring out the nuances of this character, and Thillman's performance runs at one speed--fast--upstaging the rest of the show.