THE UNSPOKEN: Much is said in Silence.
A new millennium sires volatile and uncertain creatures. In the England of the play Silence, it has people brooding over some classic dawning-of-an-age preoccupations — apocalypse, telepathy, gender roles, crises of faith, psychotropic drugs, and savage terrorists. Sounds a lot like our own last decade — that is, if our most recent invaders hailed from Scandinavia. Set in 1002, and woven around actual figures of the era, Silence uses millennial uncertainty to explore the alchemy of power and weakness, and the various ways of converting one to the other. Transformations are myriad in Moira Buffini’s strange, superb 1999 black-farce, and Dana Packard directs it in a tour de force production by the Originals, at the Saco River Grange Hall in Bar Mills.
Beautiful, bitter Ymma (Jennifer Porter, who smolders), the rebellious royal daughter of a dead saint, is banished by her vengeful brother from their home in Normandy to England, which she promptly pronounces “a dump.” But it’s a dump she’ll have to get used to, having been ordered by the petulant, brutish King Ethelred (Rob Cameron, at once clownish and menacing) to marry 14-year-old Lord Silence of Cambria (the very nimble M.W.B. Roberts). Ymma is not thrilled. But women are powerless in matters of marriage, as they are in most things. And when it comes to a husband, as she’s told by her handmaiden Agnes (Elisabeth Hardcastle, radiantly), who doesn’t have much patience with her mistress’s rages, Ymma could do a lot worse.
In fact, Lord Silence is full of surprises, being good-tempered, curious, and convinced of spiritual ideas so liberating that they befuddle the timid priest Roger (C. James Rogers, with charming candor) who performs the marriage. But Silence does not endear himself to the king, who is seized with sudden passion for Ymma. Ethelred has long done most of his reluctant ruling from within a duvet, but he now surges with new purpose, manhood, and a sense of his own power. So Ymma and Silence flee for Cambria, accompanied by Agnes, Roger and a gruff king’s guardsman named Eadric Longshaft (William McDonough III, with impressive emotional depth), who has himself had sublime visions of Ymma. And off everyone goes, as the forces of gender, sex, class hierarchy, religion, and physical strength constantly re-constellate their relations, as all find ways to transmogrify fears and frailties into strengths, for better and worse.
These scenes of physical and psychic journey open and end in gorgeous tableaux — in their cart, at rest, in various gazes at one another — held for long moments before and after action. Ymma’s blue gown and Silence’s red tunic are vivid among the browns of the others and the slate gray of the set (fine costuming is by Kate Law); this production conjures the pigments and elegance of an illuminated medieval manuscript. Lights rise and fall on scenes just a touch more slowly than is conventional (Bill Cook’s lighting design). It haloes them, in effect, and frames them more contemplatively, as if to nudge us toward thought, parable, punch-line, or simple observance.
by Moira Buffini | Directed by Dana Packard | Produced by the Originals | at the Saco Grange Hall, in Bar Mills | through April 26 | 207.929.5412
Slowed moments of all sorts abound in this play — sometimes to send home deliciously dead-panned humor, sometimes to heighten agony — and Packard’s excellent cast has timing in spades. To a role, the show is impeccably cast, and these actors develop their characters with beautiful sensitivity as the travelers learn more of the limits and uses of their powers. The corps has an impressive unity in a work with a rather off-beat ethos, and all are adept at negotiating its hairpin swerves between comedy (Roger desperately thinking of bishops and dead fish to stymie his erection) and horror (Ymma’s near-rape; Ethelred’s evolving bloodthirst).
The swerves are vertiginous, hilarious, and frightening, and Buffini’s irreverent script is at once dark, whimsical, dark, and very canny. It’s smart and sure enough to leave a lot of things unsaid, or half-said, and its economy has the force of particularly provocative poetry. The Lord Silence, as a young child, was told that one can hold a lot in a silence. In the Originals’ magnificent production, the gestures and gazes between words resonate with fears as deep, as absurd, and as inescapable as history.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at