Friday, September 23, 2011

Mortal Terror: A Play by Robert Brustein

Mortal Terror
A Play by Robert Brustein
At the Modern Theater, Boston MA.

Review by Zvi A. Sesling

Robert Brustein’s “Mortal Terror” is more a comment on contemporary life than life in the Shakespearean era it portrays. It is also an expression of the universal theme “what goes around, comes around.”

Using the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Brustein presents seven characters who represent not only 1605, but happenings 500 years later, perhaps even 500 years before. The use of this revolt is Brustein’s vehicle for expressing his feelings about war, terrorism, torture and much more.

Brustein, who is a Founding Director of the American Repertory Theater, delves into the mind of writers. As Shakespeare (Stafford Clark-Price) is writing “Macbeth” his friend Sir John Harington (Dafydd aps Rees) suggests he write a play critical of the king. Shakespeare’s desperate response is, “I am a dramatist Sir John and dramatists do not take sides. Their characters do. I simply record the discord in blank verse.”

Many novelists and playwrights have uttered that line: “It’s not me talking, it’s the character.” But is not the character merely a creation of the author? Do they not think or feel that which they are writing, even if they try to show both sides? Brustein poses this question as he does questions of the integrity of authors.

From Brustein’s perspective, Shakespeare’s writing of Macbeth is less creative inspiration and more monetary necessity and appeasement of royalty. In one of the more comical scenes King James I (Michael Hammond) commissions Shakespeare to write a play that includes witches for a tidy sum that will keep the author financially secure for a time.

King James I, played superbly with varying portrayals of anger, humor and cold blooded dictator, is the king who orders the revision of the bible while at the same time authoring a book about witches and the supernatural. Perhaps this is Brustein’s way of saying that we are all driven by competing forces. James, who is in a loveless marriage and accused by his Queen of having numerous affairs, has no knowledge of her affair with Robert Catesby (Christopher James Webb), an overly serious, scarily staring revolutionary who leads the Gunpowder Plot. The king also has little knowledge of the growing friendship between his wife and the Bard. Here again, Brustein makes a morality statement. When Shakespeare learns of the queen’s affair with Catesby he chooses to spurn her and return to Stratford-on-Avon.

Ben Jonson (Jeremiah Kissel) is perfect as the sarcastic, insulting, vocabulary filled friend of Shakespeare, jealous of the Bard’s talent and ability to procure women, is even more so when he discovers the friendship between the Bard and the Queen. If there is a fault with the casting it is that while Jonson was eight years younger than Shakespeare, Kissel’s appearance is that of an older man, which brings to mind the fact that Shakespeare was 41 years-old during the Gunpowder Plot, but Clark-Price, without beard and moustache, looks to be much younger.

Nevertheless, Kissel’s performance rivals Hammond’s as star of the show. And then there is Georgia Lyman as Queen Anne. In one scene, when the King announces the execution of Catesby, Anne’s face turns into a tortured, silently weeping woman, with no tears, but obvious anguish. Discovering her lover Catesby, despite a promise to spare her son, had planned on including him in royalty’s destruction, the devastation in learning of the betrayal is clear. And when she first appears at Shakespeare’s room and removes her hat to reveal flowing hair and a beauty unseen in her queenly garb, she commands attention not only for her acting, but her startling good looks.

Sir John Harington is an excellent wise elder dispensing advice and criticism. He is every bit the knight striding the stage of the period piece not only in appropriate attire, but manner as well.

Marston/Guy Fawkes is well acted by John Kuntz. Marston is Jonson’s sidekick, while Guy Fawkes is one of the lead perpetrators of the Gunpowder Plot. Kuntz in his dual role presents a well nuanced balance between humor and drama.

Directed by Daniel Varon the play moves quickly through its roughly two hours, the actors playing their roles flawlessly and the director deserving as much credit as the actors for the success of the play.

In “Mortal Terror” Brustein has written a play of contemporary themes based on 500 year-old themes perhaps even older which replay throughout history so that as you watch
Brustein’s retelling of Jamesian England, the parallels to today’s America are unambiguous. It is an enjoyable, enthralling play which does not have a slow moment and, stripped of most Shakespearean language, is accessible to everyone.

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