Muhlenberg’s ‘Bartholomew Fair’ Offers ‘Mix Of Punk And Puritan,’ Still Relevant 400 Years After Debut

Logo of Muhlenberg College

Logo of Muhlenberg College (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Allentown, Pa. – For years, Muhlenberg College theater students have looked forward to working with Kevin Crawford, a professor at the Accademia dell’Arte in Arezzo, Italy. Now, Crawford brings his unique brand of physical theater to the Muhlenberg Mainstage with Ben Jonson‘s over-the-top comedy “Bartholomew Fair.”

One of Europe’s premiere schools for the performing arts, Accademia dell’Arte is a popular study-abroad location for Muhlenberg theater and dance majors. Kevin Crawford has worked with Muhlenberg students since 2002 as a professor at the Accademia and currently directs the school’s Master of Fine Arts program in physical theater. Crawford makes his Muhlenberg directing debut.

The production runs Feb. 21-24 in the Baker Theatre at Muhlenberg. Crawford and musician Caroline Boersma are this season’s Baker Artists-in-Residence, sponsored by the Dexter F. and Dorothy H. Baker Foundation.

Jonson’s 1614 play is “a noisy, exuberant slice of Jacobean life,” Crawford says.  Depicting a day in the 17th century life of the Fair, the play pits Puritan excesses against the cruder vices and pleasures of the Fair’s underclass — the thieves, swindlers, prostitutes and pimps who thrived there.

“It’s about the upper-class society meeting the underbelly at the Fair and what happens when they interact,” Crawford says. “Madmen become prophets. Prophets humiliate themselves and gradually become madmen themselves. It’s a mix of punk, puritan, and opposition. Clean versus dirty.”

Crawford says that despite its 17th century origins, the story still resonates with modern audiences. Crawford wants to take the world of “Bartholomew Fair,” Jonson’s last great comedy, and show exactly how relevant it still is today.

 “I’ve done ‘Bartholomew Fair’ before with students and I liked it,” Crawford says. “I was attracted to its language and its time. It’s a contemporary of ‘The Tempest,’ but a bit more racy. It’s quite unusual. … It’s a comedy, definitely not a heavy piece. It’s a fun piece.

“The thing that’s fun for me is watching this 400-year-old text just bursting to life. It’s like a firework display.”

Kevin Crawford is a founding member of the Roy Hart Theatre Company, whose groundbreaking influence on contemporary voice-work for theater is internationally recognized. He toured extensively with the company for more than 20 years, during which time the company received several prestigious prizes including an Obie Award in New York and the Prix Jean Vilar at The Printemps des Comédiens.

Crawford’s Accademia colleague, Boersma will provide original musical arrangements to the production. Her unique score uses music from the early 1600s, which she will accompany on cello, along with vocal and instrumental performances by the actors themselves. Boersma is coordinator of the music program at the Accademia dell’Arte, where she also teaches,

The music is important because it’s written into the show,” Boersma says. “Characters are always singing. It’s quite integrated. For me as a musician, it’s always interesting to work with theater. It adds a dimension.”

The show will also feature Muhlenberg faculty member Holly Cate in the role of Ursula, the Pig Woman. Cate describes Ursula as a grandmother figure to the Fair participants.

“Ursula is mean and nasty,” she says, “but she also takes care of everyone, and they take care of her.”

She describes the humor as “funny and bawdy,” with extreme characters and outrageous situations, and she says audiences will empathize with the characters’ faults and hypocrisies, as well as their successes.

 “It’s like Monty Python in 1605,” she says.

Cate originally signed on to do the show because she wanted the opportunity to work with Crawford.

“If he wanted me to read from the telephone book, that is what I would do and I would have been delighted,” Cate says. “He’s fabulous. It’s incredible to be in the room with an artist of his caliber and a teacher of his caliber.”

Faculty member Tim Averill’s scenic design will add another dimension to the show. Recently returned from sabbatical during which he explored ways in which sustainability can be incorporated into the theatrical process, Averill seeks to keep the production as eco-friendly as possible.

“Limitation is a path to creativity,” Averill says. “Sustainable theater happens when conscious choices to be sustainable are part of the artistic aesthetic.”

Averill’s set design will use elements from previous productions as well as found objects that will be modified for the show. In addition, all the paint on set will be water based, not petroleum based, and he will use the least amount of “new stuff” possible to create a hand-crafted aesthetic, he says.

Averill hopes to use “Bartholomew Fair” as an example of how a designer can preserve production values while also creating a sustainable piece of theater.

“I’m excited about the challenge of the production,” Averill says, “and I’m excited to be part of a process that puts fun out into the world.”

Both Averill and Crawford have tried to incorporate fun into every aspect of the show, from the rehearsal and design processes to the performance itself. For Cate, the process has shown her how accessible the humor in the script really is.

“Kevin has a love for the language, which is rich and nasty and fabulous and profane,” Cate says. “I think it’s going to be like a little confection that everyone is going to enjoy. It’s going to be very funny — a grand experiment.”

“Bartholomew Fair” will feature costume design by guest artist Annie Simon and lighting design by Gertjan Houben. Molly Serpi is the production stage manager.

Performances of “Bartholomew Fair” are Feb. 21–24: Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 for adults and $8 for patrons 17 and under and LVAIC students, faculty, and staff. Performances are in the Baker Theater, Trexler Pavilion for Theater and Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown. Muhlenberg Theater & Dance performance information and tickets are available at 484-664-3333 orwww.muhlenberg.edu/main/academics/theatre-dance/

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