The Shakespeare Society has unearthed a relic from the Shakespearean apocrypha called "The Puritaine, or the Widdow of Watling-Streete." Published in 1607 with an attribution to "W.S.," it was included in the Shakespearean folios of the late 17th Century. But now most scholars believe it to be the work of someone else.
Mark Ringer's staging at the Globe is labeled the "world premiere"--an exaggeration, according to Ringer's program notes, which cite a British student revival in the 1940s as well as the original production in 1606. Still, it's unlikely that anyone in Los Angeles has seen "The Puritaine."
The play deserves better. It's a sprightly little show, with a bolder satirical sweep than most of the genuine Shakespearean comedies. Its appeal should extend beyond the local English departments.
"W.S." spoofs three groups of people: the Puritans ("the Moral Majority of the early 17th Century," notes Ringer); soldiers who get into trouble because they have no wars to fight; and unemployed academics. George Pyeboard (Tom Ashworth), the protagonist, is one of the latter. He ruefully remarks that he "can call myself a beggar in both Greek and Latin."
When one of George's military pals (Ralph Redpath) lands in jail after an attempted robbery, George cooks up a con in order to obtain the money with which to bribe his friend's jailers. The target of their scheme is a recently bereaved Puritan family whose mourning is steeped in hypocrisy.
The narrative isn't hard to follow, but a few directorial amendments have made it even tidier. Though it isn't mentioned in the text, George overhears the first scene; this clarifies his later actions. When a Puritan declares that he may not steal a chain but that he might nim it, nim has been changed to the less archaic pinch .
Most important, with the addition of one word, Ringer has changed the ending so that the scofflaws can escape. The original ending is one of those insincere nods to conventional morality that sometimes pop up in the work of Shakespeare himself; Ringer's ending is more in tune with the play's comic spirit.
The Globe cast hasn't much depth, but the major roles are in capable hands. Ashworth is a well-spoken mischief maker, and Redpath looks the way romantic brigands should look.
Paul Maley and his upturned nose are ideal for the role of the chief Puritan ninny. As the swindlers' primary victim, Biff Wiff is properly pompous, though he might soften his makeup.
Many of the smaller roles are accompanied by odd inflections and occasional mumbling, and I doubt if any respectable Puritan would be seen in the garish wedding gowns that Libby Jacobs has provided for the last scene. Ringer keeps the proceedings moving, though, and it's gratifying to see "The Puritaine," even if its revival isn't the sharpest imaginable.
Performances are in repertory with "Titus Andronicus," at 1107 N. Kings Road, through March 23. Call (213) 654-5623 for schedule.