The Shoemaker's Holiday
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 6, 2005
I count on Peter Dobbins and his Storm Theatre to uncover buried dramatic treasure, revealing hidden gems that should be part of the so-called canon but, for one reason or another, are not. I refer you to, for example, Andre Obey's Noah and Stewart Parker's Spokesong, two exquisite works that Storm mounted recently which, I suspect, no other company would have given a second thought to; each proved to be something of a masterpiece yet had faded into a kind of undeserved obscurity. This time around, Dobbins has dug much further back to reveal to us Thomas Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, a British Renaissance comedy from the late 1590s that is as delightful as it is pertinent. I highly recommend a trip to the Storm's headquarters on 46th Street to catch this sprightly, touching Elizabethan "valentine."
Dekker, a contemporary of Shakespeare, is not the poet that the Bard of Avon was; but he seems to have been not so much the snob, either, which makes Shoemaker deliciously refreshing. Instead of relegating to the background the working people who were, more and more, becoming the heart and soul of English society (as happens in, say, Midsummer Night's Dream), Dekker places them front and center in this comedy, which is about, as much as anything, the glory of earning an honest living and the pride and power of the rising middle class. I was surprised at how "American" this English play seems to be, celebrating as it does the values of hard work, harder play, egalitarianism, and freedom of opportunity.
But lest I suggest that Shoemaker is anything other than a romp, let me assure you now that this is, for all its sociopolitical subtext, a very pleasing, very sweet, and frequently rowdy good time of a play, brought lovingly and vividly to life by Dobbins and his high-energy cast. At its center is newcomer Gabriel Vaughan who is very appealing as handsome and romantic young Rowland Lacy, nephew to the Earl of Lincoln, so in love with pretty Rose Oateley that he buys himself out of serving in King Henry V's army in France, in order to disguise himself as a shoemaker and be near his beloved. The Earl opposes the match because Rose lacks noble blood—she is the daughter of Sir Roger Oateley, a member of the middle class who is now Lord Mayor of London. Sir Roger's reverse snobbery stands as an obstacle as well. But Rowland, fortunately skilled in the "gentle craft" of shoemaking, is undaunted: donning more modest garb and a garbled Dutch accent, he assumes the role of a Flemish craftsman called Hans Meulter and finds work in the prosperous house of Simon Eyre.
And it's here that the play really takes off. Simon is unabashedly common folk; he's the Ralph Kramden of 16th century shoemakers, with a tart-tongued wife named Margery who refuses to be cowed by his blustery insults. Simon's staff consists of the earnest foreman Hodge, a hearty boy apprentice, and a journeyman named Firk who finds himself constantly and comically in the thick of, well, everything: Norton to Simon's Ralph; or, much more accurately—especially in the person of the remarkably nimble young actor Josh Vasquez—Daffy Duck to Simon's Porky Pig.
Together, Simon's men abet Hans/Rowland in his cause (the happy ending is never in doubt), and they also help another of their number, Ralph Damport, reunite with his wife Jane after he returns from the wars in France. Dobbins doesn't ease over the implications of Ralph's having to fight in the bloody conflict that our hero Rowland has bought his way out of; the play becomes unexpectedly sorrowful and profound in a few places as the weight of this inequity is allowed to register. But most of the time, Dobbins keeps the tone lighter than air and giddily joyful. There's a scene near the end, at a pancake breakfast being given the shoemakers by Simon Eyre, who by now has (somewhat inexplicably) been made Lord Mayor himself, in which Dobbins lets out all the stops, having his relatively small ensemble cavort like mad children all over the playing area, creating the very satisfying illusion of a cast of thousands. This staging definitely ranks among Dobbins' very best work.
I've already mentioned a few of the actors; let me stop here to acknowledge the rest, including Hugh Brandon Kelly, ingratiatingly commanding and just a wee bit foolish as Simon Eyre; Elizabeth Roby, seemingly having a blast in a fat suit as his much-maligned bride Margery; Jose Sanchez, plausibly proletarian as Hodge; Julia Motyka, lovely and appealing as Rose; Amanda Cronk, playing the wily soubrette as her maid Sybil; Ashton Crosby, suitably supercilious as Sir Roger; and Paul Jackel, entirely insufferable as Lincoln. Rounding out the large company are Jason Adams, Kevin Prowse, Kelleigh Miller, Greg Jackson, Travis Walters, and Brad Coolidge, many of whom are double- or even triple-cast, all to fine effect. They're all well-served by Erin Murphy's excellent costumes, which allow the actors to transform themselves nearly instantaneously from one character to another while preserving the world of the play. Michael Abrams's lighting is invaluable in setting mood and establishing time/place on Paul Hudson's lovely but spare set, which is framed by a trio of intersecting hearts.
The hearts are completely apropos, of course: love conquers all in The Shoemaker's Holiday—not just romantic love, but love for one's vocation, in this case, the making of shoes. Dekker and Dobbins have indeed collaborated to create a valentine for the audience here, and the timing—just a week before Valentine's Day—is propitious. A 1599 verse comedy as date play?—Why not! Take your sweetheart to The Shoemaker's Holiday, and have a ball.