Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"God's Plot" at Shotgun Players: Backstage drama, back in the day

God's Plot, Mark Jackson's new play at Shotgun Players, features several elements that, in recalling some of my favorite plays, are guaranteed to appeal to me.  There's the backstage-drama storyline about the first English settlers of a vast continent, producing the first piece of theater ever performed there (shades of Our Country's Good). There's an intelligent and strong-willed teenage girl with a crush on her handsome tutor (shades of Arcadia). There's a Colonial American story that intentionally resonates with present-day concerns (shades of The Crucible).  There's a scene where several aspiring theater-makers persuade a tapster to let them perform rent-free in his tavern, because "you'll sell a lot of beer" (shades of San Francisco Theater Pub).

Add in a beautifully designed set, live banjo- and-bass music, and dynamic and inventive staging (also by Jackson), and you have a production that I enjoyed very much.

According to the historical record, the first play to be performed in America was an original satire, Ye Bare and Ye Cubb, written by one William Darby, depicting England as a greedy mother bear refusing to share honey with America, her cub. The script has not survived, and it seems that the main reason we know of this play is due to court records: the playwright and actors were tried for sedition and blasphemy. This all took place in 1665, in a small, conservative village in Virginia.

God's Plot has fun imagining what Ye Bare and Ye Cubb might have looked like (complete with a funny/gruesome bear-baiting finale) and with making theater in-jokes.  But it also explores deeper themes that began in the colonial era and have continued to shape our country: our simultaneous desire for and fear of liberty; debates about the role of God and religion in public life; the contrast between the noble ideals we espouse in public and the petty self-interest that motivates us in private.

One can assume that, in the historical record, most of the people mentioned in connection with Ye Bare and Ye Cubb are men: the playwright, the actors, the tavern owner, the sheriff, the person who brought the suit to court, the local judge who presided over the trial, the Jamestown official who came to observe.  But Jackson has decided to tell this story from the perspective of a young woman: Tryal Pore, the judge's daughter.  "I have an eye on this town / Got my ear to the ground," Tryal sings (she narrates the show through song, the only character to address the audience in this way).  She observes the controversy aroused by the production of Darby's play and will do anything she can to be part of it.

I read one review that criticized the portrayal of Tryal for her anachronistically modern/feminist attitudes. Usually this sort of anachronism bothers me, too, but it didn't here.  I thought the play provided a convincing-enough explanation for where Tryal gets her freethinking ways: she's been influenced by Darby, her tutor. Moreover, she's not espousing women's liberation or any kind of organized political viewpoint, which I would find hard to believe.  Instead, she's criticizing her parents' hypocrisy and hoping for a roll in the hay (literally) with a hot guy -- in other words, she's acting like a hormonal teenager. And maybe it's anachronistic to claim that teenagers 350 years ago had the same drives as teenagers today. But I am inclined to believe that fundamentally, human nature remains the same from century to century. The religious leaders of the 1600s wouldn't have fretted so much about "sin" and "fornication" if they weren't deeply afraid that the young people of their community secretly wanted to sex each other up. (And of course, when you demonize fornication as much as the Puritans did, you only make it seem more alluring.)  Plus, America, especially colonial and frontier America, has often been thought of as an adolescent territory -- brash and restless and rebellious.  In that regard, it makes excellent sense that the central character of God's Plot possesses all those traits.

God's Plot continues at Shotgun Players through January 29. Tickets here.

Photo by Pak Han. L-R: Kevin Clarke (Judge Pore), Fontana Butterfield (Mrs. Pore), Juliana Lustenader (Tryal Pore), Josh Pollock (Banjo).

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