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Justice Overdo (Tom McCamus, left) roots out crimes while disguised as a madman; Quarlous (Jonathan Goad) undermines him.

Stratford Shakespeare Festival -/All photography images and logos are the property of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival a registered trademark of The Stratford

3 out of 4 stars

Bartholomew Fair

  • Written by Ben Jonson
  • Directed by Antoni Cimolino
  • Starring Tom McCamus, Juan Chioran, Trent Pardy
  • At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Even as the Stratford Festival rebranded to add "Shakespeare" to its name last year, it rededicated itself to exploring the work of Willy S.'s less saleable and T-shirt-friendly contemporaries.

After last year's rewarding dip into Spanish Golden Age drama, this season's under-exposed treat is Bartholomew Fair , a 1614 comedy by Shakespeare eulogist Ben Jonson that is, remarkably, getting its professional premiere in the New World. And with Antoni Cimolino - taking a break from his day job as the festival's general director - in charge of the proceedings, there's little foul about this fair.

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While Shakespeare's best comedies take place in the country, Bartholomew Fair is an unabashedly urban play. Instead of venturing out into the forest, its characters enter the equally wild centre of London and are transformed by it.

With two dozen named characters covering a full cross-section of Jacobean society, Bartholomew Fair 's plot is nearly impossible to summarize. Cimolino centres his production around Justice Adam Overdo (Tom McCamus, wonderfully dry), who presides over the fair's private court. The do-gooder has gone undercover as a madman to root out crimes, or as he calls them, "enormities."

There are plenty of shady dealings for Overdo - and us - to spy on: cutpurses out to pick pockets, pimps out to enslave unattended wives, and Puritans preaching without a licence against the evils of pork and puppetry. Chief among the latter is Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, a Puritan elder played by the inestimable Juan Chioran, hilariously, from under a pair of giant eyebrows that are permanently akimbo in moral outrage.

This hypocritical Puritan - a stock character of the time due to the religious movement's campaigns against the theatre - has come to the fair with the object of his affection, Dame Purecraft. Purecraft is a WILF (Widowed Inheritor of Large Fortune) and as such has many suitors, including her son's friends Winwife and Quarlous.

Another group of fairgoers is led by the childish young squire Bartholomew Cokes (Trent Pardy), who is accompanied by his reluctant fiancée, Grace Wellborn (Alana Hawley), and Humphrey Wasp, their irritable minder (a pugnacious Brian Tree).

At the fair, these visitors encounter a motley crew of misfits, the notables being Ursla, a giant pork vendor played with lots of gusto and no vanity by Lucy Peacock in a fat suit, and Lantern Leatherhead (Cliff Saunders), a pushy hobby-horse seller who also performs the play's climactic puppet play.

Cimolino keeps the relationships among all these characters - and many more - clear and makes sense out of the chaotic events of the play. That's really the bare minimum you ask of a director, but with this sprawling text it is an admirable feat.

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He heightens the circus-like atmosphere with stilt walkers, tumblers and bearded ladies. There are even some Barenaked Ladies - well one, anyway: Steven Page, until recently the front man of that band, contributes the unremarkable settings for the play's ballads.

Sometimes Bartholomew Fair can simply be overwhelming - and it doesn't help that the characters are smothered by Carolyn M. Smith's overdone period costumes; all these petticoats and pantaloons inhibit some of the play's kinetic energy.

But as a pageant of colourful characters, the play is very entertaining, as is Jonson's street-level language. While there are many compilations out there of Shakespeare's insults, Jonson - who lived a much more raucous life, complete with charges of treason and murder - out-bawds the Bard at every turn. His gross-out arsenal includes such scatological put-downs as "turd in your teeth."

Jonathan Goad's unhinged Quarlous gets to deliver the most deliciously offensive lines, from his sexually explicit and misogynistic rant about the "exercise of widow hunting" to his creative comments directed at Ursla and all her weight. But Quarlous proves witty enough to face down Overdo at the end, too - undermining the judge's authority and cutting his final ruling short: "Remember you are but Adam, flesh and blood!"

With Overdo undone, is there any guiding spirit through Bartholomew Fair 's cynics and hypocrites, thieves and dupes?

Ultimately, the hero of this production turns out to be Bartholomew Cokes. This man-child with a 30-second attention span is the butt of many jokes throughout, and by the end of the play has been robbed of every penny, his fiancée and, if he had any to begin with, dignity.

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And yet Bartholomew is still thrilled to be here and eager to see the puppets. Trent Pardy fills his character with an enthusiasm that is ridiculous at first, but ultimately thoroughly infectious. He loves this fair of humanity despite it all - and so do we.

Bartholomew Fair runs at the Tom Patterson Theatre in Stratford, Ont., until Oct. 2.

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