This 'Fair Maid' will take your breath away

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By Doug Deuchler

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OK, I'll admit it. I never heard of this play until the other night when I strolled over to Austin Gardens to see Oak Park Festival Theater's latest production, The Fair Maid of the West. It's a breathtakingly energetic show brimming with pirates and shipwrecks and duels. Oh my! This obscure Renaissance adventure/comedy is chock full of love and laughter. And it's a whole lot of fun.

Longtime Festival favorite Kevin Theis has condensed and adapted several plays by Thomas Heywood (1574-1641), a contemporary of Shakespeare's (but without the poetry). Heywood was apparently quite popular in his day, writing over 200 plays, but few of them seem to have survived. Theis is also the director, conveying a larger-than-life feeling with his terrific ensemble.

We immediately meet Bess Brudges, the chaste and true barmaid of the title, played by Amanda Forman. She's a young woman of common birth yet she's valiant, a fearless protagonist. As a longtime movie buff, I could not help but wish that back in bygone films with stars like Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, Hollywood studios had been more adventuresome and cast female leads such as this in their swashbucklers. Forman is perfect in the role.

Zach Livingston solidly plays a gentleman soldier, a gallant, good-looking sea captain named Spencer. Bess and Spencer quickly declare their love, but he is abruptly forced to flee the country. She hears about the apparent death of her fiancé and goes off to try to look into this bad news.

Spencer's loyal best friend is nicely portrayed by Debo Galogun. Bobby Bowman is hilarious as a wisecracking comic bartender. Aaron Christensen plays a brave rogue named Roughman who pursues Bess.

The show seems to grow more delightfully ridiculous, frequently slipping into slapstick as it barrels along. There is definitely not a lot of heavy thematic material to ponder. It's just a thrilling, fast-moving romp with lots of comic relief.

Festival's artistic director, Jack Hickey, plays several delightful roles, including a Spanish sea captain. But he is uproariously funny as Mullisheg, King of Fez, wearing a wonderful costume designed by Emily McConnell that looks like it's right out of  "The Arabian Nights." He even wears those crazy "sultan shoes" with the curled up toes and a large, overstuffed shiny turban.

Mark Lancaster is thoroughly enjoyable in several roles, each causing laughter to erupt. He is like a brash master of ceremonies in an old-time burlesque revue.

At several points in the show, audience participation is encouraged. Actors hand out prop muffins (made of foam rubber) to be hurled at characters on stage. At a later point small flags on sticks are distributed for vigorous waving.

There are lots of sight gags and visual tricks. When a number of the actors are "on deck" at sea they simultaneously lean to their left, then their right, to denote the rough water the ship has encountered.

Exciting fights abound in this production — from brief duels to large-scale melees that seem to feature the entire company. The choreographer is Geoff Coates. Fight captains are Kate Booth and Bill Gordon. The combat ensemble also features Ken Miller and Bryan Wakefield.

Christopher Kris contributed both original music and the overall sound design. At times the music punctuates the action or swells dramatically, as in the old Hollywood swashbucklers.

The set design, so flexible that it conveys everything from a throne room to the deck of a ship, is designed by Michael Lasswell. Stage manager is Robert W. Behr.

The play is accessible and quite suitable for teenagers.

The Fair Maid of the West, a long-forgotten work written in several sections early in the 17th century, makes a perfectly delightful second production for Oak Park Festival Theatre's 44th season. Lovely Austin Gardens is the perfect setting for this enjoyable romp.

Showtimes are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m., plus Wednesday, Aug. 30 at 8 p.m., through Sept. 2; $30, general admission; $25, seniors; $15, students; children under 12, and dogs, free. Austin Gardens is located at 167 Forest Avenue, Oak Park. Box office: 708-445-4440, oakparkfestival.com.

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