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/

Muhlenberg Opens Theater And Dance Season With ‘Polaroid Stories,’ Oct. 6-10

Provocative black-box production interweaves
mythology with real stories of homeless youth

Allentown, Pa. (Sept. 15, 2010) – The Muhlenberg College Department opens its 2010-11 mainstage season with Naomi Iizuka’s “Polaroid Stories,” a visceral blend of classical mythology and real-life stories told by street kids. The production will be directed by Zach Trebino, a senior theater major at the college. The play runs Oct. 6-10 in the college’s 100-seat Studio Theatre.

“Every season we choose at least one student to direct on the mainstage,” said Jim Peck, chair for of the department. “It’s an important and longstanding value of the program — that directing students who have shown exceptional promise get the opportunity to lead a project with the full support of the department. Zach’s outstanding record as a director, playwright, and actor made him a great choice for this opportunity.”

“Polaroid Stories” will mark Trebino’s second mainstage directing opportunity. Last fall, he helmed a one-act play, “Ouroboros, which he also wrote, as part of the “New Voices” one-act festival.

“It is wonderful that Muhlenberg affords students the ability to develop what they learn in the classroom,” Trebino said. “This is an opportunity that most undergraduates do not receive.”

Inspired in part by Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” “Polaroid Stories” takes place on an abandoned pier on the outermost edge of a city, a way-stop for dreamers, dealers and desperadoes. The play is their story — heartbreaking and celebratory, all at once. Trebino was attracted to “Polaroid Stories” because of the play’s language.

“The play mixes poetic lyricism with gritty, real, human speech,” he said.

“Polaroid Stories,” journeys into a dangerous world where myth-making fulfills a fierce need for transcendence, where storytelling has the power to transform a reality in which characters’ lives are continually threatened and devalued. Not all the stories they tell are true; some are lies, wild yarns, clever deceits, baroque fabrications. But whether or not a homeless youth invents an incredible history for himself isn’t the point, explains one character: “All these stories and lies add up to something like the truth.”

“The play shows that there is a godliness within everyone, even the most disenfranchised people,” Trebino said. “Everyone has a story worth remembering.”

Muhlenberg’s production of “Polaroid Stories” will be more minimalist than other productions of the play. It will take place in a smaller space than usual and will have fewer set pieces.

“I see the production as occurring in a black box magical fantasy theater,” Trebino said, “where things wonderful and fantastical can occur, and there is magic around every corner.”

Trebino said he takes his vision for the play in part from Jerzy Grotowski’s idea of “poor theatre,” in which the actor is the main arbitrator of the theatrical experience. He is also interested in theater that stems from Greek and Roman mythology. He was particularly interested in “Polaroid Stories,” he said, because the focus is on the female characters.

“‘Polaroid Stories’ turns mythology on its head because it makes female characters the focus,” he said.

Muhlenberg College is a liberal arts college of 2,221 students in Allentown, Pa. The college offers Bachelor of Arts degrees in theater and dance. Princeton ranks Muhlenberg’s theater program sixth in the nation, and the Fiske Guide to Colleges lists both the theater and dance programs among the top small college programs in the United States. Muhlenberg is one of only eight colleges to be listed in Fiske for both theater and dance.

“Polaroid Stories” plays Oct. 6-10 in the Studio Theatre, Trexler Pavilion for Theatre and Dance, Muhlenberg College, 2400 Chew St., Allentown. The production is recommended for mature audiences.

Performances are Wednesday through Friday, Oct. 6-8, at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 9, at 2 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 10, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 general admission, $8 for youth 17 and under. Group rates and season subscriptions are available.

Tickets and information are available at 484-664-3333 or http://www.muhlenberg.edu/theatre