note: entire contents copyright 2006 by Beverly Creasey
SILENCE is Moira Buffini’s pseudo-historical, strangely feminist, often slapstick take on The Dark Ages, set just before the Battle of Hastings, known as the cataclysmic “Norman Invasion,” which all good little British children learn, happened in l066. The date is especially significant to linguists because the Normans were Vikings who had settled in France (now Normandy) and their hybrid Anglo-Norman language stuck like crazy. In fact, for the next 300 years, no king of England spoke English—which really didn’t bother the common “Anglo” speaking folk much. They were used to rulers with foreign tongues. Even in the 18th century, George I, grandfather to the George who foolishly lost us, spoke only German. (The German connection continues to this day: The current royals changed their name from Saxe Coburg-Gotha to Windsor in l917 so as not to be seen as beholden to their cousins.) But I digress.
The New Rep’s production is a bawdy, rowdy affair with lots of sexual politics (with the emphasis on the “sex”) and a nifty ironic take on the historical imperative to slaughter one’s enemy in the name of God. Buffini borrows King Ethelred II from actual British history. Known to us as “The Unready,” because he couldn’t stave off the Vikings, his presence in Act I establishes him as a whiny, ineffectual spoilsport who can’t even get out of bed and get dressed. When he does get out of bed, he carries his blanket with him, like Linus. Everyone but him seems to know what’s coming. There’s much ranting and raving about the “Edge of Destruction.” There’s also much speculation about God’s existence. The priest reasons, like Brecht’s priest in GALILEO GALILEI, that there must be a God because “there’s nothing else.”
Ethelred does little but kvetch until ACT II, when his fashion sense seems inextricably bound to his newly acquired religious fervor. The more he kills, the better he dresses. The more he tortures, the better the material. Lewis D. Wheeler is quite amusing as the pathetic ruler of Act I but he’s thoroughly frightening as Act II’s murderous despot.
The title character of the play inherited his father’s kingdom as a boy and now, at the ripe old age of 14, is ordered by Ethelred to wed a feisty noblewoman everyone wants to get rid of. She’s certainly not pleased about the arrangement either but the two form a surprising bond, making ACT II far more interesting.
Ethelred’s protector is a macho, leather costumed warrior who thinks he can read and direct thoughts. Christopher Michael Brophy oozes sex appeal as the dangerous henchman of the king. It’s no wonder Emily Sproch as Silence is attracted to the “barbarian” knight or that Marianna Bassham as the tempestuous noblewoman doth protest a bit too much about despising him. (The man can even make his sword sing!)
The dramatic payoff for Sproch and Bassham (which I cannot reveal) and the comedic climax for the priest (Michael Kaye way over the top) and the lady-in-waiting (and was she ever!), portrayed with a wink by Anne Gottlieb, give the play its punch – and director Rick Lombardo plays up the raucous humor to beat the band.
Cristina Todesco gives us a set carved out of shiny primordial rock punctuated by curvy, “naked” winter trees. A haze of theatrical smoke (which undoubtedly gave the priest his “weak lungs”) from some underground ice age lingers in Christopher Ostrom’s cold, steamy light. Frances Nelson McSherry’s clever costumes are whimsically medieval, with funny out-of-era touches here and there just to remind us that we’re (and by ‘we’ I mean President Bush et al) not that far removed from such barbaric behavior today.