Thursday, March 17, 2005

Herbal Bed - Actors' Summit

Fine production of 'THE HERBAL BED' at Actors' Summit

Did you know that William Shakespeare had a daughter named Susanna who sued a man who had slandered her? Were you aware that Shakespeare's son-in-law, Dr. John Hall, was responsible for developing a proper treatment for scurvy? Well, these and many other revelations unravel in Peter Whelan's THE HERBAL BED, now on stage at Actors' Summit.

History recounts that in June of 1613 Shakespeare's elder daughter, Susanna, was publicly accused of having a sexual liaison with a married neighbor, Rafe Smith, as well as having a sexually transmitted disease. On July 15th she sued Jack Lane, the tale teller, for slander in the court of Worcester Cathedral. Lane, a well-born but dissipated young student of Dr. Hall's was upset because of his rejection by both the wife and the doctor and while drunk poured forth the gossip. Susanna's husband, desperate to clear her name and protect his practice, gives her his full support. Arching over all of this is the truth that the neighbor was seen secretly leaving their herbal garden one night when the doctor was on a call.

The title of the piece refers to the fact that John Hall, is a physician whose practice, according to the knowledge of the age, relied on herbal medicines grown in his home garden. The "bed," in 'THE HERBAL BED' therefore, has a double meaning - sexual and horticultural.

The script has been described as "a gripping play, written with a kind of fiery calm, ...a love story, a courtroom drama and a moral thriller, " "...a scrupulously crafted work, thoughtful, often funny, moving and always engrossing," and "A first rate drama with interesting moral issues of truth and expediency." On the other hand, it was also reviewed in more negative terms, "If the prospect of sitting through a play loaded with ...moral philosophy seems unbearably dull to you, you're probably a lot like most people."

The Actors' Summit production is excellent. Though much of the play is low-keyed, it is none-the-less compelling. The love scene between Sally Groth (Susanna) and Nick Koesters (Rafe) is finely tuned and emotionally compelling. Interestingly, in other productions, the scene contained nudity. In the AS production, though Koesters loses his shirt, Groth remains totally clothed. The implied interaction is as strong as if a costume malfunction had taken place and may be even stronger as the audience is unsure of what really did happen that fateful night. And, the final line of the play (which will not be revealed here for sake of ruining the ending of the production) was so cleverly written and so well-delivered by Jen Clifford, portraying a servant, that the audience chuckled all through the curtain call.

A. Neil Thackaberry's directing was on target. The slow pace, clearly developed emotional keying and avoiding forced English accents all worked well.

The cast is generally excellent. Alex Cikra was properly stiff, pious and priggish as Dr. Hall. Groth was exceptional as Susanna. She showed the character to be intelligent, forceful and sensual. Nick Keosters' Rafe was clearly emotionally tortured and love struck while being emotionally conflicted. Jen Clifford was delightful as the servant. William Frederick's portrayal of Bishop Parry was fine.

No one plays pompous better than Thackaberry, who not only directed but portrayed the holier-than-thou Vicar-General. Young Erica DeRoche made for a sweet Elizabeth, the Hall's young daughter.

Only Scott Shriner failed to live up to the rest of the cast. Jack Lane, the accused slanderer, must be coarse and amoral. He must be loathsomely melodramatic yet realistic villain. Unfortunately, Shriner lacked the depth of role development and played the character rather than being the person.

Side note: Often at the conclusion of historical films there are statements concerning what happened to the characters following the ending of the script. As I drove home I was wondering, What really happened between Susanna and Rafe? Was Jack Lane telling the truth or simply a resentful lie? What was the underlying nature of Susanna's relationship with her husband, and with Jack Lane himself? A quick on-line search didn't give me any answers! Oh well....

Capsule Judgment Interested in a history lesson? Want an evening of philosophical drama with low key intrigue? Want to see some fine performances? If so, see 'THE HERBAL GARDEN' at Actors' Summit