Two Medieval Knights (Breton mercenaries) in full regalia rest among the rubble of a sacked French castle. Murder and pillage can, after all, take the wind out of a fellow. They’re discussing “centralized government’s undermining federal dominance of merchant classes and agrarian society.” No kidding. Like an editorial page of the New York Times. The Hundred Years War has evoked a decidedly grim outlook; it just goes on and on. Still, the castles are beautiful, “and the hats, this is a great time for hats.”
Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) is depressed. “Do you ever feel bad for other people?” he asks his boon companion, questioning not only their violent actions, but the collective purpose. “I don’t get you,” responds Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan). “As if you were them?” Sir Ralph explains. Sir Alfred laughs. Really, he hasn’t a clue. Others knights pass on their way to blow off steam by ransacking a local abbey and raping the nuns. “Who did learn you to act thusly?” objects Sir Ralph. “My dad,” “Mine too,” they respond, running off like a group of careless, mischievous boys.
Thus begins a wonderfully clever examination of the roles in which fate and society fix us by way of a chronically unedited script that will make you feel as if you’ve sat through a good part of the Middle Ages. Medieval Play moves back and forth (with surprising ease) between modern language and colloquial parody, the latter liberally peppered with vulgarity and viscerally evocative curses; from dialogue and action to historical exposition (by Catherine of Siena—a wry Heather Burns) so aware of its plodding nature, the playwright has his knights regularly break the fourth wall to object.
Our de facto protagonist, Sir Ralph, sets out, his obtuse friend in tow, in quest of a worthy cause. Holy pilgrims the two might join flee them in fear. Monks pelt the men with what might easily be excrement when they suggest joining the order. Resolved to lead a better, more righteous life, Sir Ralph consistently falls off the wagon in favor of habit, peer pressure and sheer opportunity. A scene of unwitting seduction has great humor and panache in the hands of Halley Feiffer playing Lady Marjorie. Bodies continue to fall. So it goes. Sir Alfred arrives to collect Sir Ralph observing the corpses at his feet. “How-did-ah-you sleep?” he asks deadpan.
We’re given glimpses of so-called noble life at a castle feast during which a Venetian etiquette book is read aloud. The tome pronounces such as “do not blow your nose with the same hand you use to hold your meat.” It’s a Saturday Night Live sketch and frankly unnecessary. And witness one corrupt, drunken, fornicating Papacy morph into the next.
A fitting and well played part of history but again, too dense. Sir Ralph and Sir Alfred part and meet again only to find themselves on opposite sides.
Kenneth Lonergan’s writing is always smart and often very funny. Sir Ralph’s situation exemplifies a timeless quandary. Missives the knight receives from his wife by exhausted carrier pigeons describe her ably handing a siege in irresistible detail. The knight’s relationship is warm and naturalistic. The chronicle is well dramatized. If only a red pencil had been found.
The small company exhibits character definition each time new personas are assumed. Priceless expressions and excellent comic timing abound. The stage is aesthetically utilized.
Josh Hamilton (Sir Ralph) is terrific. We never doubt his character’s heart is in the “right” place, even when his sword is not. Conflict, resolve, and simple joy read credibly in every speech and gesture throughout a thoughtful, empathetic performance. Hamilton makes a good hero. With the help of Fight Director J. David Brimmer, he also wields a graceful sword.
Tate Donovan (Sir Alfred) embodies the perfect foil. Dialogue with Sir Ralph is affectation free. Portrayed innocence is frustrating and infuriating. Coarse behavior makes sense. The actor’s excellent characterization paints a whole soul. Sir Alfred’s attraction to the opposite sex is especially well played.
Heather Burns (Catherine of Siena, 2nd Harlot, 2nd Diner) creates an erudite Catherine half petulant child, half manipulative mystic, always engaging narrator. The actress raises an eyebrow with tone.
Halley Feiffer (Margery, 1st Harlot, Emilia, Jester, Queen Joanna, Beatrice) unleashes liberal comic talent with her vamped bedroom scene. She’s fearless. John Pankow (Cardinal Robert of Geneva who becomes Pope Clement Vii, Jacques, 1st Diner, Herald) offers solid, sympathetic representation of the cardinal. The walk is a particularly nice touch. His Herald is adroitly, if briefly ridiculous. Anthony Arkin (Bartolomeo Prignano who becomes Pope Urban VI, Elderly Cardinal, Servant) is deliciously swishy without going over the top. He quivers with the best of them. Also featuring Kevin Greer and C.J. Wilson in various roles.
Set Designer Walt Spangler has given us enlarged Medieval manuscript illustrations manifested with the watercolor blur that occurs when something is Xeroxed. Cardboard cutouts moving seamlessly from the wings forming layered hills replete with chateaux and framing interiors with architectural detail. Incidental furniture (wonderful beds!) has one foot in accuracy and the other in stylization.
Michael Krass’s Costume Design is appropriate and attractive. The knights are able to move gracefully despite being encumbered, yet clank a bit eliciting smiles. Evidence of battle is just apparent enough. Other wardrobe is lush, colorful and class or character specific. Silhouettes are always interesting. Headgear is especially wonderful.
Telsey & Company; Will Cantler, CSA deserve a call out for great casting.
Photographer: Joan Marcus
Opening shot- Left-Josh Hamilton, right-Tate Donovan
2nd shot- L to R- Josh Hamilton, Tate Donovan, C.J. Wilson
Table Shot L to R: Tate Donovan, Josh Hamilton, Halley Feiffer, C.J. Wilson, Heather Burns, John Pankow,
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
Pershing Square Signature Center
Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd Street
Through June 24, 2012