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Jonson Waxes Political

Ben Jonson Meets His Match in the Ambitious but Addled For the Return of Albion

Masters of Jonson: Led by Noel Schively as Ben Jonson (center, with beard) and Roy Hammond (center right) as Inigo Jones, the cast makes smart work of 17th-century types in for the Return of Albion.

By John Barry | Posted 8/6/2003

For the Return of Albion

Mike Field

Mike Field's For the Return of Albion is a play about a play that never gets performed. That may sound a little postmodern, but actually, it's situated deep in the heart of Stuart-era England, during the reign of James I, in the year of our lord 1625. That's terra incognita for any Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry that this reviewer has seen, and it poses a few basic difficulties from the get-go. The appropriation of period vernacular is a little forced, and those who haven't read up on 17th-century England will be a little confused. Neither is really Field's fault, but a little background information is required.

In the 1620s, the shy, stammering Prince Charles (Edward Alsedek) headed off to Spain with the Duke of Buckingham to look into the possibility of marrying the Spanish princess. Such a marriage would have shaken the balance of world power considerably. By the time this play begins, the marriage is very much up in the air. France and Italy are doing whatever they can to prevent it from happening, since it would have left them out in the cold.

Field puts his spin on the situation by placing famed writer and thinker Ben Jonson right in the middle of all this political maneuvering and back-stabbing. By this time, Jonson has been playwright to King James for a decade or so, and each year he has to come up with a masque. Field's premise is that this year's production will in some way be interpreted as an indication of James I's attitude toward the Spanish marriage. It's stretching things a bit, but it begs the question: How does the artist survive when his work is used as a political tool?

Since Albion itself seems to be a sort of Elizabethan comedy, the focus is at best a little blurred by a large cast that is populated with stock types: the foppish Buckingham (Randy Dalmas), the mustachioed Spanish ambassador (Robert Teachout), the devious Italian ambassador (Jerry Gietka), etc. Splendidly arrayed, they lobby their causes in fairly predictable fashion. The dramatic center of the play is located squarely in the figure of Ben Jonson (Noel Schively). Schively plays Jonson effectively as a world-weary stoic who erupts occasionally with bursts of poetic eloquence or infuriation. The latter is usually directed at Inigo Jones (Roy Hammond), his sidekick and scene designer. Schively and Hammond make a convincing pair of squabbling partners. In their most telling scene, Field puts both men in a tavern, and, in a sort of drunken ramble, Jones starts declaiming about the virtues of the visual over the verbal in drama.

Compared with those moments of clarity, the Machiavellian court drama seems a little muddled. The prime mover behind all these palace intrigues--the Italian ambassador, Alviso Valonesso--is more of a narrator than a participant. Gietka's wily persona is given short shrift; instead of participating as a full character, he spends most of his time winking knowingly at the audience while explaining the machinery of 17th-century European politics. That imposes two degrees of separation on the drama itself, which can get a little frustrating at times.

Field certainly enriches the crop of historical dramas in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival by avoiding the didactic, one-issue PC spin. He's writing out of genuine affection for the era, and, as his playwriting résumé indicates, this isn't a passing fancy. And as Jonson gets entangled in the politics of the 17th century--to the point where it becomes impossible to actually show the play he's written--Field doesn't get steamed up about it. At points he even seems to wax nostalgic for days when playwrights were important enough to piss off the ruling class.

Chesapeake Center for the Creative Arts, 194 Hammonds Lane, Brooklyn Park, (410) 636-6597. Tickets $12 members, $15 nonmembers.

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