Among the "Thoughts on History" quoted in the program for Stephen Temperley’s new play, "The Pilgrim Papers" are these (in excerpt only, sorry):
"History is more or less bunk..."Henry Ford; "All history becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography."Ralph Waldo Emerson; "Every time history repeats itself the price goes up."Anonymous; and from Salman Rushdie: "Throughout human history the apostles of purity, those who have claimed to possess a total explanation, have wrought havoc among mere mixed-up human beings." Put these theories on stage and you have the new play, now in its premiere production in the Unicorn Theatre at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA.
The play is set in locations in and around Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620 and in the present. Seven actors portray thirteen characters. History is at the core of the reality portrayed and the alternate reality imagined by the playwright. What if...? he asks, What if a second colony sprang up, a rival colony of Pilgrim-folk with a more liberal mindset, encouraged by one Native American with a sense of history’s future? What would have happened in the formerly reasonable relationships of these colonists? It’s a fascinating premise on which to build a theatrical evening. Temperely, a good writer and his director, Vivian Matalon, a good director, don’t quite bring it off.
One problem with the work is its preachiness. A message play is one thing, but a play that throws a morality in your face with a minsterial majesty is something else. The other is the format, a narrator tells us what we need to know and understand before, during and after many of the scenes. This device works, when it works, because an excellent actor is uttering the words. Austin Durant, who was extremely powerful earlier this season in The Illusion, turns his contemporary narrator into a strong and forceful figure. His voice and his physical presence make this character into something more than just the voice of the author. He becomes an intimate of the audience, a friend with a story to tell. That’s the best thing about the writing of this character, the accessibility we feel. We could almost be asking him direct questions and getting direct answers. That feels good, especially in as intimate a space as the Unicorn.
Durant also plays the Indian named Squanto and a fifteen year old girl, Little Mary. His characterizations are unique and, as he flits from one personna to another, he manages to make each of them very different, very real and quite believable. It’s a bravura performance which, without the moralization of the writing getting in his way, could have saved the show.
The story goes like this: Governor Bradford, arriving in Plymouth, does not lose his wife to death but to another ideology: free love, acceptance of alternative lifestyles, smoking dope. She and a few stragglers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony set up an alternative settlement, accepting the morality of the natives as expressed by Squanto. Feeling threatened by this new group, Bradford, Miles Standish and their cohorts attempt to put down the rebellion, squash self-expression, reject same-sex relationships as unGodly and generally act like their twenty–first century counterparts in Washington, DC. They attack, kill, capture, maim and torture anyone who doesn’t agree with them, create fallacious rationale, "weapons of mass destruction," for example, for their own behavior and other generalizations that sound all too familiar. This is meant to be both funny and poignant, clearly, but it falls somewhat flat on the ears of an audience already tired of hearing these things daily on the news.
The Pilgrim Papers of the title, suppressed diaires of Dorothy Bradford, are the basis of the story as Bradford reads them aloud, hearing them in her voice, and ultimately destroying them, erasing this "history" so that it cannot be repeated by generations to come.
That plot of the play doesn’t begin to emerge until 23 minutes into the narrative. It’s much too long a setup. We meet Bradford and his wife during their brief courtship, witness their marriage vows and understand rather quickly that they are going to be at odds, intellectually. Dorothy, or Dot, is played superbly by Arnica Skulstad-Brown. As the perfect woman, turned hippie Goddess, she embodies all of the things Temperley is writing about. She is the soul of acceptance, the eyes of the future Utopians. Looks, gestures, vocal inflections all assume importance in her hands. She and Durant form the keystones of the work. It is brilliant casting working under the direction of a master of the form.
By the time Standish establishes his new forces, including making a spy out of Little Mary, which he calls Conscience In Action (or C.I.A.), the joke is already old. We’ve been keyed into the message of history repeating itself - even if the earlier history is a fiction - and there really are no surprises to come. Instead the audience is lulled into a complacency to the situation, having that fore-knowledge of how things will be explained. This is a puzzle for the author to solve: how to make things more interesting, more surprising and perhaps funnier. Humor is currently in the recognition of familiar phrases from the Bush administration cropping up in the dialogue of these 17th century players. That’s not funny enough.
Justin Stoney plays three men, all of them gay and all of them proponents of Dot’s rebellion. Two of them marry and the third becomes the willing partner of gay Squanto. Stoney is good in his roles, but his delineation of them needs a bit more work. Only Jenkins truly emerges as a strong, distinct character. Phil Sletteland plays Bradford with an awareness of the difficulities and traps in his role. He pulls it off well and Bradford becomes alternately sympathetic and hateful. We end up sympathizing with his losses and resenting his power and his mis-use of it. He is Bush with a soul and that’s not an easy picture to paint.
Joshua Davis has the hardest role, Standish. He is never likeable, never sympathetic, never easy. He plays it forcefully, sometimes too much so. Likewise Brent Michael Eroy’s Winslow, a preacher with tendency to rant and rave. Sometimes he’s just a bit too much to take. Martin Askin has developed his two characters, Jones and Billington, into lovely and discernible folk. He does well with both of them.
The physical production is fun. R. Michael Miller’s simple set, Tracy Christensen’s cross-century costumes and especially Ann G. Wrightson’s perfect lighting help this play to the best of their technical abilities. The play runs two hours and ten minutes and with time, work and some heavy pruning may turn into the play that Temperley envisioned. For now, it’s an exercise in historical perspectives that almost, but not quite, works.
◊ 08-04-07 ◊
Justin Stoney and Arnica Skulstad-Brown; photo: Kevin Sprague
Martin Askin and Phil Sletteland; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Pilgrim Papers plays through August 26 in the Unicorn Theater at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA. Performances are Monday through Saturday at 8pm with matinees on Saturday at 2pm. Tickets are $28-$34. Seating is general admission. For tickets calls 413-298-5576. For more information go to their website at www.berkshiretheatre.org.