Fort Worth — It’s easy to forget that Shakespeare was once a popular playwright. Separated from us by a common language that’s become uncommon, he gets elevated by English teachers and the elite, alike.
Ever wonder what it would be like to easily enjoy his convoluted plot twists and wordplay? Lovers and Executioners at Circle Theatre is as close as you can get to Cineplex Shakespeare. Playwright John Strand has abandoned “good taste” for what tastes good, combining all the exciting parts (just look at the title) in a sweet and salty combination of rhyming couplets, bickering couples and bodice groping.
It’s a little chunky, at times, but so is a good pint of Ben and Jerry’s.
Director Robin Armstrong does her best to save the roof of your mouth from the sharp parts with her sumptuous costumes and swishing swordplay. The way her talented cast, led by Marianne Galloway, balances this whipped-up romantic confection almost makes the wait for Blue Bell bearable.
Designer John Leach’s dramatic lights accentuate the dramatic beginning where Bernard (Chad Gowen Spear) is sailing away from stranding his wife, Julie (Galloway), on an island for committing adultery. This high-stakes operatic scenario threatens to leave the audience, as well as the cast, in the dust right from the start. Fortunately, Shane Strawbridge as Bernard’s wily servant knows how to find a way back. As lights come up on a charming Clare Floyd DeVries fountain-in-a-town-square set, he and Suzanna Catherine Fox, playing servant Beatrice, reset the show’s comedic tone. Just like that, we somehow recognize this place and these people.
That’s because the plot and characters are cribbed from Montfleury, who wrote in 17th century France and borrowed from commedia characters who are really borrowed and boiled down as well. So, the rascally servants are a flavor we can all agree on instantly. Bernard is a little chewier chunk. As a guy who would kill his wife, he makes an uncomfortable character and it doesn’t help that Spear plays him as constantly haunted. Strand makes it worse when he tries to mix him into stock master/servant shtick. Just when it seems impossible to take the serious to silly and back again, Galloway appears as Frederic.
After surviving stranding the duped and dumped wife Julie puts on her big boy pants and assumes the masculine identity of Frederic. Somehow Galloway weaves the serious stakes of betrayal-based revenge and the silly scenario of woman dressed as man grabbed by woman. See, the town tart, Constance (Amber Marie Flores), is promised to Bernard but pursued by Frederic (anything to prevent her husband from remarrying, right?). To add to Julie/Frederic’s romantic mish-mash, Don Lope (Eric Dobbins) is a sword-wielding Spanish rival for Constance. Meanwhile, her servant, Octavius (Richard Stubblefield), knows her secret and discovers that he carries a torch for her while carrying her torch, if you know what I mean.
It’s not all fun and games. Frederic, based on an offstage friendship with folks in power, becomes judge and jury of the town. With the power perfectly swapped, will she exact revenge on her husband, who left her to die? What will she do to balance the score? What would any of us do to an ex, if given a chance? Is it fair to punish someone for something they did mistakenly? Is it fair to add this kind of conundrum to a comedy?
Lovers and Executioners at Circle Theatre is a guilty pleasure. How much guilt and how much pleasure is up to you.