IT SEEMS PERVERSE to call a play where (almost) everyone dies at the end "fun," but oddly enough, that's exactly what Northwest Classical Theatre Company's The Maids' Tragedy is. That's surprising enough for straight-up tragedy, but it's especially weird in this case: The play is an obscure, rarely performed Jacobean tragedy, written—in 1619!—by two of Shakespeare's lesser contemporaries, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. It's theater nerd fare of the highest order that, in theory, shouldn't appeal to anyone but the most diehard of Bardheads.
The story's familiar enough: Melantius (Tom Walton) returns home after a war (as Jacobean heroes so often do!), weary and ill disposed to courtly society, only to find his top bro, Amintor (Steve Vanderzee), has broken an engagement to Aspatia (Melissa Whitney) and is getting married to Melantius' sister, Evadne (Brenan Dwyer), at the king's mysterious urging. If you've ever seen a tragedy, the reason's clear—secret affair!—and the outcome, inevitable—much (bloody) revenge!
Northwest Classical Theatre is known for adaptations of classical works that are good, but also play it straight and frill-free, so I was surprised that this production employed so many contemporary references and surprising visual choices. The playbill contains a nod to Quentin Tarantino, the play's bleak material is soundtracked by Kanye West and Pharrell, there's an entire scene that takes place while Aspatia and her handmaidens do sun salutations, and there's a heavily implied BDSM undercurrent to Evadne and the king's not-so-secret relationship. As the grisly events of the play progress, the actors' makeup becomes increasingly pale, with smudged red lips that at the play's opening suggest revelry, but by the end, seem more bloody than anything else.
Whitney plays Aspatia as a defiant, bratty teenager, dejected and not handling it gracefully. She spends most of the play clamping on headphones and lugging around a journal, her face permanently smudged in cried-off mascara. The only thing missing is a dog-eared copy of The Bell Jar, and I mean that as high praise, because there's a quiet intelligence underlying Aspatia's rage and disappointment. Like Ophelia, she seems to know something everyone else doesn't. Unlike Ophelia, she has a personality.
Dwyer's treatment of Evadne is similarly smart. She could easily be played as a flat femme fatale—the play's very afraid of female sexuality, and Evadne is the chief embodiment of that (silly) fear. Instead, she's a woman trapped in a world with no room for her ambitions, who also kills people.
Shoebox Theatre is an absurdly small performance space, which adds an extra layer of intensity and high camp—and potential for visible mishaps. There's no need for stage whispers, and you can basically tell what brand of shoes Evadne is wearing when she kicks them off before committing murder (like you do). Under performance conditions like these, you don't need to proooooo-JECT. In fact, you probably shouldn't! When a few of the actors in The Maids' Tragedy did, wayward spit seemed a real concern, and when Vanderzee threw a pillow in one scene, it almost hit an audience member. (As at SeaWorld, maybe don't sit in the first row.)
Still, there's something very satisfying about watching actors make Beaumont and Fletcher's language transparent and accessible merely through their delivery. Whitney, Vanderzee, and Dwyer all have this quality, making ancient, archetypical characters fully formed and even funny. I laughed many times throughout The Maids' Tragedy, and when the bloody final act arrived, it was, as promised, more Tarantino than Zeffirelli. Not bad for the 17th century.