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The Life and Death of Jack Straw

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 7, 2016

Jack Straw Cast
Photo by James M Smith

With the historically strange election day of 2016 looming over us, it would not be difficult to imagine a new play depicting a populist uprising by disgruntled citizens, disgusted with the way the affluent class is living high on the hog and demanding "wealth and liberty" for themselves. This is exactly the sort of play that is being presented by the theater group known Bad Quarto. But, as it happens, the play they are performing was written more than 400 years ago.

The Life and Death of Jack Straw first appeared in print in London in 1594, with no playwright being given credit for it. As far as Bad Quarto and its artistic director Tony Tambasco have been able to ascertain, the play hasn't been staged since that time.

That alone is reason enough to catch the production at Studios 353, the chance to see a rare play by one of Shakespeare's contemporaries. But a better reason is the opportunity to watch the members of Bad Quarto in action. Be forewarned that in accordance with its mission, you will never see a well-rehearsed, polished production by them. This is by design a company that seeks to recreate as much as possible the conditions under which these early works were actually performed. Thus you should expect to see minimal staging, ragtag costumes, and the overhead fluorescent lights left on during the entire production. The first preview was also the very first run-through by a gutsy crew acting by the seat of their pants.

Yet this is less of a gimmick (or a way of justifying a cheap production) than it is an intent to stay true to the way that such plays would have been experienced by an audience back in the day. The one concession is that we don't have to stand in the manner of the groundlings; there are folding chairs for us. But there is no barrier between us and the cast, and you may very well be called upon to participate in the action from time to time.

As for the play, The Life and Death of Jack Straw is about a short-lived and quickly quelled uprising against King Richard II (Maria Pleshkevich). Indeed, it comes off more like a "paid political announcement" in the form of a tribute to the nobility and mercifulness of the king than as a political or history play. Jack Straw (Andre Silva) is killed in battle, and only the two most egregious leaders are executed after the rebellion is quashed. One of these is a rabble-rousing clergyman (James Overton), which perhaps says something about the ongoing power struggle between the church and the monarchy at the time the play was written.

The production is decidedly a tribute to the dedication of the cast. Despite the almost non-existent rehearsal time, no one flubbed a line or needed prompting during the 70-minute performance. There is definitely a vibe of all-for-one-and-one-for-all that permeates everything the company does. This includes the troubadour-like songfest of contemporary tunes that takes place before the play commences. It is very appropriate that the company sings Echosmith's The Cool Kids ("I wish that I could be like the cool kids/'Cause all the cool kids, they seem to fit in") before and at the end of the performance. Because it turns out this motley company of theater geeks, like Shakespeare's "Rude Mechanicals" who perform a highly entertaining version of "Pyramus and Thisby" in A Midsummer Night's Dream, wind up being the coolest kids of all.

The Life and Death of Jack Straw
Through November 5
Studios 353, 353 West 48th Street
Tickets by calling Bad Quarto's box office at (646) 598-2128 between 10 AM and 6 PM