History tours

Silence at New Rep; trying at MRT; Olympia Dukakis in Rose
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  January 24, 2007

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SILENCE: Awash in anachronism and bodily fluids, it never bores.

Silence could be golden, but British playwright Moira Buffini can’t resist throwing in cheaper metals. And director Rick Lombardo can’t resist polishing them for laughs in the play’s bold, brash, but too-flip New England premiere by New Repertory Theatre (at the Arsenal Center for the Arts through February 11). Buffini takes off from historical fact to create an imagined scenario in which, at the turn of the first millennium, Norman princess Ymma is exiled by her brother to England, where the king, Ethelred, marries her to a 14-year-old Viking prince of the UK. Ethelred then has an apocalyptic dream in which Ymma encompasses salvation, and he sets out to co-opt her for himself, brutally offing Vikings along the way. This much is true: in 1002 a Norman princess named Emma did marry the self-indulgent Æthelræd II (nicknamed Æthelræd the Unready), and she later wed his Danish successor, Knùtr, or Canute. On that foundation, the playwright builds a steamy, savage platform on which a Shakespeare-like history (or, given that the cast numbers six, a Reduced Shakespeare Company–like history) dukes it out with The Crying Game and Spamalot. Is it any wonder that the serious themes and the tongue-in-cheek tone of this Susan Smith Blackburn Award–winning work don’t always balance? But as the play works questions of faith, philosophy, tyranny, gender politics, and individual freedom into a mediæval road show awash in anachronism and bodily fluids, it never bores.

When we meet Ymma, on the road toward Canterbury and her fate, she’s barfing — Marianna Bassham’s first “lines” as the fierce Norman damsel are retching noises. Ymma’s maid, Agnès, tries to keep the vomit out of her mistress’s hair while improbably named bodyguard Eadric Longshaft works up a religio-sexual obsession with the princess. Soon we meet Ethelred, a puling, near-naked hulk who never gets out of a soiled-looking bed covered with what probably was not long ago a very large animal. The indolent monarch is looking for a way to divert Viking raids on his kingdom; marrying Ymma to Silence, lord of Viking-settled Cumbria, fits the plan. But Silence turns out to be a gangly kid who’s been brought up on pagan lore that conflicts with the aggressive Christianity Ethelred endorses. That’s where an uncertain young priest named Roger comes in: he’s to be spiritual guide to Silence, getting him up, so to speak, for the “sacred act” that will knit him to his angry bride — who’s pissed off about everything from incestuous rape to the tightness of her corset.

There’s plenty of lust, violence, and zingy riposte in this proto-feminist bodice ripper — and no little polymorphous perversity and genuine wonder. There are also laughs, sprung from an odd combination of Theater of Cruelty and contemporary nonchalance. Director Rick Lombardo handles the rampant sex and the outcroppings of tenderness with aplomb, but he pushes the goofiness of the comedy, particularly in the character of Ethelred, who’s played by talented Lewis D. Wheeler like a petulant Poor Tom morphed into a bloodthirsty Lancelot. The cast, though, is deft at navigating Buffini’s strange dramaturgical terrain, where mediæval and modern crudeness meld and, amid pointed depiction of the barbarity of holy war, a loving bond develops between Bassham’s Ymma and Emily Sproch’s sexually awakening Silence. Ethelred may appear to get his way, but in Buffini’s world the girls are king.

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Related: Facing facts, Sleeping with the enemy, Speaking up, More more >
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