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A Voyage Of Derring-Do: The Fair Maid of the West Sails Again in Oak Park

The Fair Maid of the WestIt may be hard to believe nowadays, but the biggest worry of the CT20 company in 1994 as they prepared The Fair Maid of the West was finding enough actors trained in cloak-and-sword combat. When Thomas Heywood's original drama premiered in 1631, every male citizen was well-versed in the art of fencing, but changing social customs over the next three centuries had relegated swordplay to an arcane pastime, taught by European fencing masters for sport, but in the U.S. for theatrical purposes, typically improvised by its practitioners.

The proliferation of theater curricula in academic settings eventually made for a supply of actors with a modicum of stage combat skills, their numbers mostly concentrated in locations promising work opportunities—New York, Hollywood or major festival arenas like Toronto. Suburban theater, by contrast, has long been associated with light comedy, often featuring old-school actors more familiar with slaps and prat-falls than rapier duels.

Last winter, however, Oak Brook's First Folio Theater served up a feast of flying steel to audiences west of Harlem Avenue with David Rice's page-to-stage adaptation of Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood, featuring swashbuckling stunt-choreography by Nick Sandys, himself starring in the role made famous by Errol Flynn in the 1935 Hollywood film. Following upon the heels of its success is Oak Park Festival Theater's revival of Kevin Theis' groundbreaking version of Heywood's renaissance-era action-adventure epic.

Fair Maid of the West recounts the saga of Bess Bridges, a tanner's daughter renowned for her wit, beauty and chastity—the latter preserved by means of its owner's prodigious skill with a sword. When her true love, the handsome and nobly-born Spencer, is forced to flee the country, she acquires a ship and a crew of loyal men (bearing picturesque names like "Goodlack" and "Roughman") to venture forth in search of her swain. After many close brushes with adversity, the two are reunited in the Arab kingdom of Fez, where they grapple with the fates one last time.

The 1994 production was staged indoors in the Belmont Avenue facility now known as Stage 773, but the revival currently playing in downtown Oak Park is performed in the idyllic greenswards of Austin Gardens, its grassy lawns surrounded by stately shade trees and tidy shrubs teeming with rabbits, squirrels, fireflies and cicadas (in season)—along with ambient traffic noise from passing cars and cruising airplanes. Let's not forget, either, that bane of all summer alfresco entertainment, rain.

Author-director Kevin Theis is less perturbed by the vagaries of climate than by the proscription on climbing the ancient oaks giving the host city its name. "I really wanted to replicate Spencer's entrance, where he swings in on the end of a rope, but the Parks department had ordered us, in no uncertain terms, to keep our dirty theater hands off their trees, so what else could we do but comply?"

Does [fight choreographer] Geoff Coates plan to carry any of the fights and chases out into the audience? "Not a chance." Theis assures me, "Our audience includes children who may wander into the path of a running swordsman. We'd much rather keep the action onstage, and have the kids wish they could join in."

Fair Maid is more than mere dances-with-cutlery, he reminds us. "At the center of all Heywood's spectacle is a fable of love and honor, courage and loyalty—traits that we still value, four hundred years later. This is why I am happy to be bringing my vision of Bess and her cohorts back to life after nearly two and a half decades!"

The Fair Maid of the West runs through September 2.

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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