A New Way to Pay Old Debts, presented by the University of Tampa Department of Speech, Theater and Dance at the David Falk Theater, Tampa, FL, 27-29 March 2009.

Lizz Angello
University of South Florida

Lizz Angello. "Review of A New Way to Pay Old Debts, presented by the University of Tampa Department of Speech, Theater and Dance at the David Falk Theater, Tampa, FL, 27-29 March 2009." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/angemass.htm>. 


Directed and adapted by Bob Gonzalez. Sound and Set Design by Bob Gonzalez. Production Design by Alex Amyot. Scenic Artist: Lynn Principe. Costume Design by Frank Chavez. With Adam Corson (Frank Wellborn), Eric Sigler (Sir Giles Overreach), Danielle Calderone (Lady Allworth), Meredith Payne (Justice Greedy), and Rodner Salgado (Jack Marrall). 

  1. Philip Massinger’s plays enjoyed enormous popularity on both sides of the Atlantic for three hundred years,[1] but his masterpiece, the genre-defying A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1633), now lights up only the occasional student theaters, and rarely receives much attention from American critics or audiences. The reason for Massinger’s sudden disappearance from theatrical seasons remains unclear, though perhaps his social conservatism finds little favor with modern theater-goers. A New Way to Pay Old Debts heavily endorses the “divine” right of the landed gentry to determine social mores. The wealthy landowner Sir Giles Overreach, Massinger’s villainous centerpiece, cannot maintain his position in the face of a prodigal noble’s return, and the play clearly justifies Frank Wellborn’s recovery from debt and debauchery (hence his name). Sir Giles is thus destroyed not by his abuse of those beneath him, but by his presumption in fleecing a gentleman. The play stages a kind of anti-American dream: the profligate former nobleman triumphs over the industrious, self-made man, simply by virtue of his heritage. It is little wonder, then, that American audiences fail to embrace Wellborn or wholly accept Sir Giles as a devious upstart who deserves his wretched fate.

  2. Still, the student theatrical group at the University of Tampa decided to give the play a try, making a few unconventional staging choices in an attempt to close the gap between Massinger’s day and our own. Ticket sellers, concession hawkers, and ushers dressed in period clothing and extended the playing space into the lobby, which initiated the performance at the outside door. Inside the theater proper, the actors (in character) grouped informally onstage (talking with one another sotto voce) or milled about the aisles, exchanging plot-related gossip and passing out copies of a mock-broadsheet called the Nottingham Tattler. One actress stopped just in front of me to fawn over a man’s iPhone; when he snapped a photo of the stage, she motioned to her fellow cast members, exclaiming over the device. They wondered aloud how “they fit all that oil paint into that little box” and how they managed to execute the image so quickly. Campy, sure—but it created a more festive atmosphere than one generally anticipates in student productions of now-obscure Caroline plays. The illusion might have been better maintained had the actors simply taken their places onstage when the house lights dimmed, rather than scurrying behind the curtain, although one did hop onto the proscenium to bang on the boards with a stick and announce, town-crier style, that all modern sound-making devices should be silenced at that time. (Justice Greedy repeated this bit at intermission, stepping forward and enjoining us to adjourn to the lobby for refreshments.)

  3. The cast’s efforts helped while away the minutes before the play began and effectively distracted the audience from the sweltering heat in the theater. I was not quite diverted enough, however, to cease being perplexed over the costumes and setting. Clearly, the UT crew had set the play in the late eighteenth century, but were it not for the Nottingham Tattler (printed, a tad anachronistically, on bright orange paper) in front of me, I would have assumed that we were in post-Revolution America. Indeed, even the play’s director and adaptor, Bob Gonzalez (Assistant Professor of Speech, Theater, and Dance at UT) spoke of the production’s “John Adams feeling” (Gordon), though he neglected to explain how such a “feeling” might serve the production. Ostensibly, as Americans, we might be expected to relate better to characters dressed as the framers of our Constitution, but no attempt was made to link this setting (or its values, customs, sensibilities, and anxieties) to the setting Massinger chose for his play. A century and an ocean make no difference, apparently, except in the cut of a skirt or the turning of a wooden table leg. Given the play’s intensely English concern for the preservation of nobility and inherited land, the American veneer unsettled rather than comforted.

  4. The disjuncture between setting and action speaks to a larger issue that plagued this production: the cast and crew appeared to have staged only the plot of A New Way to Pay Old Debts, discarding any evident interest in character, language, or social implication. Simply observing the play, one might think it was a light-hearted romp through ye olden days of yore, with an uncomplicated subplot revolving around two pairs of lovers and a couple of jokes about food. Perhaps Gonzalez’s adaptation was partly to blame; greatly reduced in size, the play occupied less than two hours, including intermission—a wise choice given the youth and inexperience of the actors, but troublesome in terms of conveying any sort of political or social message. Gonzalez managed to trim away all but what the play requires to advance its plot, leaving few of Massinger’s linguistic explorations or contemporary allusions. His changes had the benefit of not losing modern audiences in outdated references, but simultaneously cast off much of the charm and delight in language that makes early modern drama so interesting.

  5. The lack of attention to language was the biggest drawback of UTs production—not so much the discarding of verbal embellishment, but the actors’ obvious disinterest in what they were actually saying. In any amateur production, actors must resist the temptation to simply recite lines at one another; in mounting a centuries-old play, they must also overcome the language barrier and inhabit their lines as vehicles for conveying ideas and emotions. I remained unconvinced throughout A New Way to Pay Old Debts that most of the people on stage were characters rather than college students in elaborately patterned frocks. The trouble with this lack of investment went beyond the audience’s inability to suspend disbelief and rendered the play’s conclusion inexplicable. Why did Eric Sigler’s measured and calculating Sir Giles suddenly begin raving halfway through the final scene? Even the others on stage seemed nonplussed by his transformation, as though they forcibly accepted it because the script said so, without understanding it as the natural evolution of a thwarted schemer overcome by his own passions. The servants of Lady Allworth’s household appeared more deeply embedded in their roles (especially Samantha Jeka’s pitch-perfect Furnace—it’s not her fault the audience didn’t get the jokes!), despite their lockstep movement and delivery. Two actors in the main line up disappeared into their characters: Justice Greedy and Jack Marrall, both of whom did a tremendous job of inhabiting their fictional skins. As Greedy, Meredith Payne spooked me in intentionally too-white makeup with clearly drawn “beard” lines on her chin, but I was completely taken in by her droll delivery and unabashed lust for food; as Marrall, Rodner Salgado became Massinger’s well-meaning but opportunistic lawyer who thoroughly enjoys the lifestyle of a coxcomb and parasite. Danielle Calderone turned in a convincing portrait of Lady Allworth, a grieving widow whose innate snobbery fails to prevent her from helping a decent man reclaim his fortunes, although I would have enjoyed hearing more of the lines that she quietly projected at the backdrop. The remaining cast—Alicia Thompson as the eligible bachelorette Margaret Overreach, Adam Corson as a mumbling but likeable Frank Wellborn, Tanner White as the handsome young Tom Allworth, and Nick Haughland as the honorable Lord Lovell—performed tolerably well in their mostly one-dimensional roles.

  6. As one always hopes, the play improved in the second half. The actors more fully inhabited their characters and their interactions seemed less scripted. Sigler’s flexible and expressive face seemed capable of conveying more of his character’s inherent smarminess than he allowed, as though his Sir Giles was trying to maintain a cover identity that Massinger’s script does not suggest. Had he played to his mobile features more frequently, we might have better anticipated (and therefore trusted) his character’s mental explosion in the final scene. Instead, we, like the characters on stage, were left to stand silently while he “raged,” waiting for our cue to drag him offstage and begin the restoration of order. The company accomplished this last task tidily, if slowly: the finale may well have been the show’s strongest moment. Corson played Wellborn sympathetically, which contradicted my desire, as a modern American, to see him wallow in his self-destruction a bit longer, but made for a rousing end to an otherwise sedate and distant (though beautifully costumed) play.
[1] See Robert Hamilton Ball’s detailed stage history of Massinger’s play for performances throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

Works Cited



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