Director Philip Lehl first met The Fair Maid of the West the summer he graduated from college. He was traveling around London and caught a performance directed by Trevor Nunn.
“I was just very taken with it,” he recalls. “It was a very Shakespearean plot, but it’s about the people of the day.”
Lehl is now directing the show for Classical Theatre Company, although it will be performed at Queensbury Theatre, following the news that Classical needed to vacate its Chelsea Market location. The play is actually a mashup of Thomas Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West Parts One and Two first published in 1631. It’s the story of Bess Bridges, a barmaid who falls in love with a high-born solider named Spencer. After news of his death, she inherits his fortune and buys a ship, taking to the high seas to retrieve his body.
“A barmaid, at that time, was synonymous with hooker,” explains Lehl. “But our Bess, we learn, won’t do that. But, we follow her story, and, when she thinks her lover is dead, she becomes a pirate and sets out to plunder Spain. Other adventures ensue.”
Taking places across 20 different locales, including several ships and the Moroccan court, Fair Maid is an epic. Classical’s production isn’t about multiple sets or even dozens of period costumes. From the outset, Lehl wanted a show that would allow audiences to experience it with their imaginations, which is why he’s using minimal sets and costumes to tell the story.
“We’re doing it in the round, with maybe 100 seats, so it’s an intimate experience,” he says. “And we’re using a small cast, so people are playing multiple roles.”
Originally, he thought he might cast the show will only female actors, a cheeky nod to the idea that in the Bard’s time, plays were performed with all-male casts. But, as he re-read the material, it became obvious to him that it made more sense to cast some guys. The result is an ensemble of five women and two men.
“A lot of the roles in this show are not what I’d call central roles,” he says. “They might come in for a very quick scene or a couple of lines. So, we’re having those played by G.I. Joes—puppets, essentially—where the cast conveys the lines with toy dolls. The effect should be that this is a bunch of cool art kids playing in a sandbox.”
With the show’s strong central female character and feminist themes, Lehl thinks the play will resonate with the current times. But he also wants it to have a lightness and to showcase Heywood’s humor.
“This is really stupendous, silly fun,” he says.
Classical Theatre audiences know the company’s mission is to provide productions of plays that are at least 100 years old. For the uninitiated, however, Lehl hopes the show provides a window to Shakespearean playwriting world. Heywood was among the Bard's crew of contemporaries, including Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe. Many of those plays were lost across the centuries, so finding one—and being able to stage it—is a treat, thinks Lehl.
“It’s like Shakespeare, but not,” he says. “We’ve given it a contemporary spin, so it’s people wearing 2019 Houston clothes. But above anything else, it’s a comedy—this rollicking adventure that’s really fun. Anyone expecting a stodgy play is in for a surprise.”
Thru Feb. 24. Tickets $25. Classical Theatre at Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Ln. 713-963-9665. More info and tickets at classicaltheatre.org.