by Jess Hoffman
When I sat down to see Bridge Street Theatre’s world premier of Rude Mechanics, I was immediately intrigued by the set. In the dimness of the unlit stage, there appeared to be a giant alligator head in the center of the stage and off to one side something that looked like a badly crafted head of some baleen whale attached to the head of a stork. What these props looked like under dim light is not exactly what they were, but that matters very little. They disappear in the first few minutes of the show and do not reappear. But they very effectively set a tone of absurdity before the play even begins.
The play opens with the Master of Revels, Lord Strayte (played by Steven Patterson) and an inexperienced actor, Julian Crosse (played by Jack Rento) walking clumsily into a playhouse. The latter is desperate for a last minute rehearsal, having been suddenly thrust into a bigger role than he had initially anticipated. As the play begins, the characters set about lighting candles at the foot of the stage and on the hanging candelabra overhead. The lights come up as the candles are lit, and this simple action sets the scene of an early seventeenth century indoor playhouse. The set, the props, and the costumes all successfully put the audience in the play’s time and place. Playwright and director Eric Hissom has clearly done his theater history homework, despite a few understandable anachronisms that serve the story and seem to be done with intention. The early modern historian in me was very pleased.
From its very beginning, Rude Mechanics is an exemplar of theater about theater. To use the bard’s own words, it is “some satire, keen and critical” about theater and art. There is plenty of talk among the characters that points to how theater can be political, theater can be subversive, and theater can be dangerous. This was true back in the 16th and 17th centuries and it is true now. But Hissom’s play seems to lean more into the absurdity of theater rather than its revolutionary potential. Most of the play centers around a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and specifically the Pyramus and Thisbe play within the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which is repeatedly rehearsed within the play Rude Mechanics). The multiple layers of plays within plays do a service to Hissom’s meditation on theater, but doesn’t necessarily make any points about the political or dangerous side of the arts.
Em Whitworth’s portrayal of Rosemary Bessanio is a delight to watch. She is passionate and angry to the point of occasional (understandable) bursts of violence, but with layers of nuance that make the audience sympathize with her rage as a female playwright in a man’s world. Jack Rento is similarly brilliant as the naive but lovable Julian Crosse. The scenes of Julian rehearsing as Thisbe had me nearly falling out of my chair with laughter. Steven Patterson starts out strong in the beginning of the play as the highfalutin Lord Strayte but loses momentum later as a drunken William Shakespeare, and consequently the play drags a bit in the middle. Andrew Goehring plays the self-righteous actor and activist Henry Worthy in a way that is so infuriating, priggish, and somehow familiar that I wanted to jump out of my seat and punch him in his smug face myself (luckily Rosemary takes care of the punching, so I was able to stay in my seat). I say this as praise to Goehring, since a self-righteous prig is exactly what the role calls for and it is a credit to the actor that he was able to affect me so deeply.
I was thoroughly impressed with Rude Mechanics up until the ending. The main plot of the play revolves around actors desperately trying to rehearse before their performance in front of the court. Throughout the play other sub-plots come up–a love triangle, a question of a character’s parentage, playwrights feuding over a script–to the point where the main plot is occasionally completely lost. None of these plots are ever resolved. Instead the play ends with a strange vision, a small miracle (seemingly unrelated to the rest of the play’s problems), and even the fate of the performance around which the entire story revolves is left unknown. Perhaps this open-ended ending was by design, and I wasn’t necessarily expecting a Shakespearean-style ending where everything is concluded with perfect neatness and finality. But the final scene of Rude Mechanics has so little to do with the rest of the play’s action that it didn’t seem like any sort of conclusion at all. Even a total cliffhanger might have been a more satisfying ending provided it had more connection to the rest of the play.
While Hissom’s script failed to deliver a tidy Shakespearean ending, Rude Mechanics’s homage to early modern theater is apparent and very well-done. Much like a Shakespearean comedy, Rude Mechanics is hilarious but not farcical. It is poignant and makes clever commentary about theater and art that are timely and also timeless. And it manages to do all this while still being laugh-out-loud funny. It should be noted that the playwright also directed this production, so later productions will tell whether or not the script stands the test of other directors’ interpretations. But this production at Bridge Street Theater is decidedly worthwhile. Regardless of your feelings on Shakespeare or early modern theater, I highly recommend this production to any and all lovers of comedy and lovers of theater.
Bridge Street Theatre presents the world premier of Rude Mechanics written and directed by Eric Hissom, running from April 20-30, 2023, at the Bridge Street Theatre, 44 West Bridge Street in Catskill, NY. Production Stage Manager: Kiara Vedovino. Cast: Jack Rento as Julian Crosse, Em Whitworth as Rosemary Bessanio, Andrew Goehring as Henry Worthy, and Steven Patterson as Lord Strayte/William Shakespeare/The Ghost of Elizabeth I. Sets and Lights by John Sowle. Costumes by Michelle Rogers.
Performance dates are Thursday-Sunday. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday curtains are at 7:30pm and Sundays are matinees only at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $28, student tickets available for $15. Runs approximately 90 minutes with no intermission. Contains sexual themes and alcohol abuse. Recommended for ages 13+. Tickets are available online at https://bridgest.org/rude-mechanics-tickets, by phone at 518-943-3818, or at the door for any performance. For more information visit https://bridgest.org or email contact@BridgeSt.org.