‘The Haberdasher’ Delivers Swashbuckling Laughs (3.5 Stars)

“The Haberdasher” – Written by Walt McGough; Directed by Brett Marks; Scenic Design by Luke J. Sutherland; Costume Design by Erica Desautels; Produced by Argos Productions at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave, Boston through Jan. 25th.

Argos Productions’ “The Haberdasher”, a new play now being performed at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, is a broad comedy focusing peripherally on a young female haberdasher’s apprentice seeking her destiny, but the plot mostly takes a back seat to a a series of pretty funny character sketches in this production, and it works pretty well for the most part.

Antoinette (Kaitee Tredway) is an orphan that was abandoned outside the shop of Bellamy the Haberdasher as a baby, and he has groomed her to be an exceptional tailor, albeit one with a massive streak of violent behavior towards customers. Following her latest assault on a customer, she is put on notice by her guardian/employer, but due to circumstances (possibly) beyond her control, she ends up assaulting a constable who is trying to apprehend the female thief that is robbing the haberdashery of clothes for a disguise.
She is consequently fired, but ends up joining forces with Vivian the thief (the terrific Hannah Husband) just as she is about to be double-crossed and murdered by a couple of thugs who had hired her to steal a locket from the local Duke’s chamber. Vivian convinces the more dim-witted of the thugs that although Antoinette is armed only with a tailor’s measuring stick, she is actually the bloodthirsty killer, The Haberdasher! who becomes a mayhem machine at the smell of blood, and they escape death. The two reluctantly join forces after they get smashed at a local tavern, and what we get next is a fairly nebulous plot about a Duke trying to keep his true identity by producing a locket that may be a forgery to a King who is about to visit his Dukedom. But like a lot of good comedy, the plot is really secondary to the funny dialogue and situations. In fact some of the scenes have the feel of a sitcom rather than a play, but this doesn’t really detract from the comedy. The dialogue is a combination of medieval times French and English and modern slang, so at no point do you feel that this is a poignant dramedy – it’s just good fun.

The comic performances are what carries this show, especially Brendan Mulhern, who not surprisingly, is a member of the Cambridge-based improvisational group Improv Boston. Mulhern plays a series of hilarious characters (all four of the actors play multiple roles) including the aforementioned dim-witted but self-aware thug Bruno, a deranged cross-dressing castle dweller, and Vivian’s love interest, the constable. Mark Estano also shows his comedy chops as a drunken Frenchman and the Duke’s hysterical wife as well as the haberdasher Bellamy, one of the show’s few male straight roles. As is the case with most theater, the women are given a little less to work with comedically, but Husband has some good moments, especially as the Duke’s sadistic henchman Robert, who yearns to be a clothing designer himself. She also does a nice job as the tough and sexy thief.
Kaitee Tredway is pretty cute as the lisping Duke as well as Antoinette, but I was wondering why she kept breaking up – Harvey Korman-style – during the production at some of the show’s more absurb moments. I found out after the show that she was a last minute replacement for the original actress who broke her elbow in the final weeks of rehearsal. Given the enormous amount of dialogue across multiple characters (not to mention the swordfighting – with real swords) her performance is pretty remarkable. It also probably accounted for some of the uneven feel to the play, given that there are a lot of lightning quick costume changes as one of this comedy’s devices. The night I attended was the show’s opener, as the previous night’s performance was cancelled. As a night of comedy, “The Haberdasher” is a pretty good take that I expect will grow stronger with multiple performances. For more info, go to: http://www.argosproductions.com/the-haberdasher.html