Don't feel bad if you've never heard of Thomas Middleton, let alone a Jacobean playwright. A case can be made that ever since the British playwright's run in early 17th century England, not many people outside of a theatre studies program could name one of his plays.
"The Shakespeare brand kind of has a monopoly," says Colleen MacIsaac of Vile Passéist Theatre, a group of drama students and graduates who plan to enlighten audiences with two rarely performed Middleton productions, starting next week at the Bus Stop. "Shakespeare's a fabulous writer, but there are also a number of other very talented writers during that time period who just haven't been branded or celebrated as well."
Vile Passéist Theatre's presentation of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside and The Revenger's Tragedy not only marks the first time these two plays have been presented in the city, but one of the spare occasions they've been performed since their writing.
"There's always talk about people wanting to do these shows, but they just never get done. "I just think they have these reputations as being kind of difficult," says Dan Bray, director for The Revenger's Tragedy. Bray started Vile Passéist in 2009 while living in Toronto. The niche group found little support in that city for early modern theatre fans, but returning to Halifax offered a new beginning, with support from the local community and new talent, including passionate Dalhousie students ready to act.
With 30 cast members between the plays, one of those difficulties is certainly the production's size, especially in a location like the Bus Stop. "In both plays there are dances, fights, crowd scenes. There is everything in these shows, which is really nice and a great challenge, but it takes a lot of work to get these plays organized," says Bray.
"This has never been done before so we can't go and look at Sir Laurence Olivier or any prominent actors performing it," says Dorian Lang, director of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Although there is a lack of books and recorded performances of the productions, in a way, it allows more creativity for the young theatre buffs.
"With these plays we're not having to think like, 'This is the millionth time that someone has done A Midsummer Night's Dream. How are we going to make it ours? How are we going to make it original?'" says MacIsaac with a laugh.
"Set it on Mars!" Bray jokes, although a romantic comedy in a space forest does sound pretty awesome.
But the fresh slate does come in handy in the plays' production and the directors' minimalist approach. Although they don't have to worry about any on-set accidents like Julie Taymor's troubled Spider-Man musical, it does create an overwhelming focus on the quality of the acting amongst the theatre troupe.
For Vile Passéist Theatre, it's clear they wouldn't have it any other way. "There's so much in the language that if you just have crazy sets and costumes, you're not going to be listening to it," says Bray. "It allows us to actually just do the plays without worrying about how over-produced they are," says MacIsaac. And for the three early modern drama fans, the focus should lie solely on the acting and dialogue. "These are plays that are meant to be produced and not read."