Thursday, December 8, 2011

Those Wacky Puritans Are At It Again

It's that time of year again, when thoughts turn to The War on Christmas, crass commercialism, and political  purity pledges. For those like myself, who are not really into Christmas carols, this is an excellent opportunity to chill out while appreciating the purity of a vocal line. What better source for vocal and moral purity is there to turn to than Vincenzo Bellini's 1835 opera, I Puritani?

Although set in the 1640s, during the English Civil War, I Puritani belongs to the age of bel canto opera. In addition to a mentally unstable virgin (a role that offers coloratura sopranos a chance for some fierce, flashy, and florid displays of fioritura), I Puritani is a godsend to tenors with high money notes and the breath support to float a beautiful line of music over the orchestra.

If you're sick of listening to holiday music, here's 18 minutes of bel canto bliss from Bellini. The following clips from I Puritani are:

Mae West was notorious for claiming that  "I was pure as the driven snow -- then I drifted." In the following clip from The Daily Show, Jon Stewart points out just how far conservatives (who claim to know exactly what America's Founding Fathers were thinking at any given moment) have drifted from the truth.

How secure is our knowledge of what happened in colonial times? Of equal importance: Whose documentation are we depending upon to refresh our memories?

For it 20th anniversary season, Berkeley's Shotgun Players commissioned five world premieres. The final production of the company's 2011 season was written and directed by Mark Jackson, an accomplished Bay area playwright who teaches at San Francisco State University. In 2010, Exit Press published 10 of Jackson's plays.

Cover art for Ten Plays by Mark Jackson

God's Plot focuses on a peculiar piece of little known theatrical history. As Jackson explains:
"I first heard of Ye Bare and Ye Cubb -- written in 1665, and the first known play to be produced in the future USA -- at a 1997 lecture given by theater director Anne Bogart. No copy of the script has survived the centuries. And from what little documentation she found on it, Bogart concluded that the supposed satire and its legal battle was an early example of the American habit of separating art from politics, which would eventually reach a dramatic high (or rather low) point during the McCarthy era.

More recently, Joel Eis wrote a thoroughly researched book collecting every scrap of evidence he could find on the case, revealing that the incident was not only about art and politics, but also religious conflict, economics, land fraud, false identity, entrepreneurialism, community, the spirit of independence, and a host of other issues near and dear to the American heart. It seemed this little known blip on the timeline of our nation's history actually contained nearly all the seeds of our national character.

I've already been asked a few times what the play's message is, which surprises me because, in writing it, I didn't set out to deliver any message. The incident itself encompasses so many potent themes and ideas (all debatable) and I hope I've allowed them to remain as such. I just wanted to tell this great story that got under my skin, moved me, excited me, made me laugh, reminded me of my failings, and encouraged me to continue to 'go west.' By that, I mean to explore the open range of my thinking, my actions, and the choices I might make in relation to the people who are all my neighbors. This story and its distant figures remind me of who I am as an American with all my pluses and minuses vying for dominance in one messy body."
Will Hand, Juliana Lustenader, and Anthony Nemirovsky
performing a scene from Ye Bare and Ye Cubb in
God's Plot (Photo by: Pak Han)

Using a beautiful unit set by Nina Ball inspired by what an early Virginia church might look like, Jackson created the following characters for God's Plot:
  • Thomas Fowkes (Daniel Bruno) runs the local tavern in a small town about a day's journey from the heavily Puritan colony in Jamestown, Virginia. What most people in the village don't know is that Fowkes is a Quaker.
  • Edward Martin (John Mercer) is one of the local Quakers who, although a stickler for detail, benefits financially from the tavern's earnings. He's a most disagreeable soul and a royal pain in the ass.
  • William Darby (Carl Holvick Thomas) is a British actor and playwright who settled in Virginia after abandoning his initial plan to live in Barbados as an indentured servant. What makes him useful to the villagers is his writing skills and ability to use the English language for their purposes.
  • Cornelius Watkins (Anthony Nemirovsky) is a tobacco farmer who, although not particularly bright, understands that one of King Charles II's tax policies is grievously unfair to colonials.
  • Phillip Howard (Will Hand), another farmer, is a friend of Watkins who agrees to appear in the play their friend Darby will write that will satirize their financial injustices.
  • John Fawsett (Dave Maier) is the local sheriff who, despite Edward Martin's self-righteous shenanigans, would like to keep the peace.
  • Daniel Prichard (Joe Salazar) is a newly-arrived carpenter who hopes to make his fortune in Virginia and find himself a pretty wife.
Edward Martin (John Mercer) gets into an argument with
Phillip Howard (Will Hand) in God's Plot (Photo by: Pak Han)

Then, of course, there is the Pore family. Although Capt Edmond Pore (Kevin Clarke) is well respected in the community and his wife, Constance (Fontana Butterfield), is a devout Puritan, their spirited daughter, Tryal (Juliana Lustenader) can be a real challenge. Dangerously inquisitive (think of a colonial version of Meghan McCain), she is discovering her lust for life.

Not only is Tryal smitten with William Darby who, as an actor, is trying to teach the young woman how to project her voice, she's a horny young wench fascinated with the idea of becoming an actor. Unfortunately, if your parents are Puritans,  wanting to dress up onstage as a bumble bee is a questionable choice (for most of the previous century, women who appeared on the English stage were assumed to be prostitutes).

Juliana Lustenader as Tryal Pore in God's Plot (Photo by: Pak Han)

Jackson's play tackles lots of themes from unfair taxation to religious hypocrisy; from feminism to the importance of community theatre. It's easy to see how "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

There's just one problem. God's Plot is horribly overwritten.

While I deeply admire much of Jackson's work as a playwright and director, as I watched God's Plot, I thought the first act was suffocating under the weight of too much exposition. Hoping that Act II would find its rhythm, I subsequently found myself thinking "This is what happens when a talented playwright falls in love with a topic and (try as he might) simply can't wrestle it to the ground."

Jackson's cast certainly threw their hearts into the performance. At the matinee I attended many people in the audience found God's Plot to be hysterically funny. I didn't.

I found God's Plot far more tedious than theatrical. Nor was it helped much by Daveen DiGiacomo's original songs and the accompaniment (on banjo and double bass) by The Plotholes (Travis Kindred and Josh Pollock).

Tryal Pore  and The Plotholes
(Juliana Lustenader, Travis Kindred and Josh Pollock) in a
musical moment from God's Plot (Photo by: Pak Han)

No comments: