Thursday, May 24, 2012

'Medieval Play': Yuck, Blecch, Gross.

The nice young woman I was chatting with the other day during intermission at the Signature Theatre’s Irene Diamond Stage, where we were watching Kenneth Lonergan’s Medieval Play, called the work a “vomit draft.”

That colorful description, which is sometimes applied to rough, rough drafts of works-in-progress, is apt on a couple of levels. 

There is the obvious one, an expression of the not-ready-for-public-display nature of the work.  But it is also an appropriate description for the too-numerous-to-count references to every manner of the expulsion of effluvia the human body is capable of producing. 

It is hard to know what this accomplished playwright, who has won and been nominated for numerous awards (This Is Our Youth may be his best-known play), had in mind when he came up with this most unusual work.

Imagine, if you can, what the frat boys characters on display in the rock musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson would come up with if they were commissioned to write a play based on a dense, dry history textbook; let’s call it Medieval France and the Western Schism of the Catholic Church:  1376-1378.

That should give you some idea of what is in store for you if you decide to see Medieval Play—a truly baffling mix of history, politics, sex, religion, and table manners.

Before the play begins, we hear the sounds of battle.  The curtain parts, and we encounter two armor-clad knights resting on some rocks.  After a silence, one of them speaks:  “It’s certainly grim here in Medieval France.” 

And so begins the picaresque tale of two benighted knights, Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) and Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan), mercenaries eking out a living by fighting in the Hundred Years War.  Hey, it’s a job! (“I wonder how long it will last,” one of them wonders aloud.).

The dialog from beginning to end combines weighty exposition with low humor that continues to descend unrelentingly, slipping past Monty Python’s Spamalot and a lot of very bad Saturday Night Live sketches, before landing and staying squarely in the gutter. 

Ostensibly, the plot is about Sir Ralph’s desire to abjure raping and pillaging and to lead a better, purer, more chivalrous life, one that will lead him to God.  Fat chance.  At least not in the human muck and mire that pass for life in Medieval Europe. 

Amidst all of the unsavory goings-on (raping and pillaging are the least of it), there is one bit that could conceivably be viewed as a clever satire.  That is a banquet scene, in which the hostess (Halley Feiffer) reads aloud from a new book of etiquette, touching on appropriate manners regarding the discarding of bones, spitting at the table, what to do with one’s snot, and other bits of pleasantry.  This is potentially funny stuff, depending on one’s tolerance for gross-out humor, presumably based on an actual document from the time period.  

And if you do stick around for the second act (at the performance I saw, many in the audience chose not to return after intermission), you will find some tighter writing, and, surprisingly, you may even learn something you didn’t know about the historic battle over the papacy.

I’ll not discredit the actors, many of whom play several roles, from harlots to popes.  Messrs. Hamilton and Donavan, and Ms. Feiffer are joined by stalwart and brave colleagues:  C. J. Wilson, Kevin Geer, John Pankow, Anthony Arkin, and Heather Burns. 

I believe it is Mr. Lonergan, who serves as both playwright and as the playwright’s most indulgent director, who needs some time-out. 

Perhaps with a huge amount of editing, there is enough here to sustain a sharper, shorter play, but for now, “vomit draft” is the operant description. 

Feel free to tell your friends about this blog, and to share your own theater stories by posting a comment.  And if you can't get enough of ProfMiller, check out his column, ProfMiller@The Theater, at

No comments:

Post a Comment