Girl Anachronism

18. December, 2011 Theater No comments

American theater started as a criminal act. The first play performed in English in the colonies was Ye Bare and Ye Cubbe, a satirical stab at the English throne performed in rural Virginia in 1665. As Shakespeare’s contemporaries could attest a generation before, the Puritans were no fans of theater. Performing plays was a crime under their governance, and so was breaking the Sabbath—so this play performed in a tavern on Sunday was doubly forbidden, even disregarding any treasonous content. The show was reprised in a command performance in court, where it was judged harmless.

Will Hand, Juliana Lustenader and Anthony Nemirovsky in God’s Plot. Photo by Pak Han.

No script nor detailed record of the play survives, but prolific and inventive playwright-director Mark Jackson pays tribute to this cornerstone of American drama in God’s Plot, the final selection in Shotgun Players’ 20th-aniversary season entirely made up of commissioned world premieres. A small portion of the audience sits in pews onstage in Nina Ball’s handsome set of a humble period church that also stands in for a pub, a barn and other locations. Christine Crook’s costumes give some flavor of the period, although I find it very hard to believe that a young Puritan woman in colonial America would be wearing a purple dress.

Although the performance of Ye Bare and Ye Cubbe is the central event of God’s Plot, the main character isn’t involved in the play at all, although she’d like to be. She’s Tryal Pore, the teenage daughter of the judge who tries the case and the private student of the playwright. She’s taking instruction from William Darby (a roughishly charismatic Carl Hovick-Thomas), a new guy in town with a shady past that he’s thoroughly reinvented in the New World, but most of their lesson time is taken up with free-thinking and canoodling. Playful, aggressive Tryal wants to jump the guy’s bones, but worldly William doesn’t think that’s such a good idea.

The girl is a living anachronism, with 21st-century attitudes in a 17th-century world. She alone has the tendency to break out in song, and nothing remotely period-appropriate either but some kind of modern jazz/blues/cabaret hybrid. She does most of her singing unheard by the community around her, commenting on the action in progress. Unfortunately, the play would be better if she never sang at all. The songs, composed by Daveen DiGiacomo, are lackluster and meandering, with awkward lyrics (“old and scold world”) and unwieldy meter. The jazzy backing music is quite good, however, deftly played by Travis Kindred on stand-up bass and Josh Pollock on banjo.

Juliana Lustenader displays great energy and precocious intelligence as Tryal, although her line readings are stiff. Jackson doesn’t attempt to make the dialogue sound period-appropriate, with the exception of a pervasive formality that often feels stilted. (“You instigate a physical encounter with me and I’ll remind you of your age, old man.”)

John Mercer exudes hauteur as a sour and severe Quaker (an outlawed sect at the time) and a pompous major visiting from Jamestown to observe the trial. The Quaker Edward Martin is essentially the Malvolio of the piece, which seems ironic because he’s one of the few non-Puritan characters but is the most puritanical of the lot.

Kevin Clarke is quite funny in flashbacks as Thomas’s bawdy father and pleasingly repressed as Tryal’s father, the local judge, with Fontana Butterfield all aflutter as his exaggeratedly prim wife—both aghast at Tryal’s modern bluntness. Joe Salazar is a bland presence as the upright, pious carpenter Daniel Pritchard, so much so that when he emerges as a rival for Tryal’s affections, it’s impossible to understand why.

Dave Maier makes an amiably imposing Sheriff Fawcett, and Daniel Bruno is well grounded as mild-mannered barkeep Thomas Fowkes. Anthony Nemirovsky is amusingly shiftless as Cornelius Watkins, a curmudgeonly tobacco farmer ruined by bad debts and English trade regulations. It’s Cornelius’s discontent over the latter that spurs William to rope him into performing a play satirizing King Charles and his trade policies. The other actor in Ye Bare is Phillip Howard (Will Hand), a simple farmhand who’s elated to be upgraded from indentured servant to tenant hand.

There’s a little awkward slapstick in the show, but there are also priceless bits, especially in overtly theatrical sections such as Ye Bare’s drawn-out death scene or when William’s back story is acted out as he tells it. Jackson plays fast and loose with the period references, at least in terms of the timeline, and inserts a clever gag foreshadowing the American Revolution of the next century. As historical fiction it’s pretty lightweight, at least until the end. The play ends with a truly marvelous final speech that takes the what-happened-to-whom roundup to dazzling new heights. If it weren’t followed by yet another cumbersome song, it would be the perfect note to end on.

God’s Plot
Shotgun Players
Through January 29
Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave.
Berkeley, CA

Show #116 of 2011, attended December 3.

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