Medieval Play

by deerinthexenonarclights

In this day and age where modernizations rule over restorations the title of this play suggested something comforting; a return to period play-writing, to thou’s and ye’s, to the likes of Chaucer, Shakespeare and other such classical stylings. Again though I sat down in the Signature Theater -this time panting and half out of breath, having ran down the final stretch of street to make it in before seating closed – and had my expectations misproven as errors, again I was given something drastically different from what I expected, though this time it was almost entirely for the better. The play is advertised as a comedy and I had assumed that they meant this in a literary sense – that it would end with suggestions of new life, etc. Though in this was the play is actually a tragedy – but in fact they were speaking literally; Medieval resembles more than anything The Chaser, Monty Python and other such modern comedy stylings, but executed in a bold and bawdy way that the Bard would adored.

The title though isn’t just an ironic one, this play is set specifically during the medieval period – the Hundred Years War and the Papal Schism that followed to be specific, which the script certainly is – and the dialogue is era specific – or what we now imagine that to mean – but the inflection switches from Shakespearean Period to a strong Philly Accent in the space of a pause. These are knights and they have all the requisite flowery phrases that we would expect, but underneath the armour they are also men and so they also have all the gross and gentle human urges that we know would be true; they’re torn between our fictional ideals and what we know to be reality. The play itself switches similarly – though not always in sync with the way it’s characters are speaking – from the staid to the super modern, with some scenes centered around Soliloquies and others around self referencing. It is the friction between these two states that provides the play with both its power and its terrifically puerile humor.

The balance between them is a precarious one and is only pulled off for the most part; there are times when the play slips and stumbles one foot off the tightrope, but it never falls. Furthering the danger though is the fact that the script also stares down another accepted element of such plays and forces it to polarize. It’s hard to recognize now because past periods all blur together in our modern minds, but at the time of their writing many of Shakespeare’s works were already period pieces, flashbacks to ancient times. They were written to function as both a piece of entertainment and a history lesson, so it is that they contain a lot of contrived exposition; setting the scene and unpacking the context for us uninformed viewers. Medieval makes fun of this feature by taking its facts as far as it does the farce: characters deliver great chunks of histrionic drivel, throwing names, dates and events at us with abandon; passing off so much past that we could never possibly retain a single part of it, that of course being the point.

A scene that provides examples of all these traits occurs early on; after arriving in the fortress of Avignon (then home of the French Pope) the two knights find themselves in the office of a man known as ‘The Little Bishop’. One gets into an involved debate with him about the churches attitude towards inter-european political strife while the other attempts to defecate in the corner. That, for better or worse, is what this play does, that is the binary it belies. This though wasn’t the only mise-en-abyme; There are a number of lines in this, Lonergan’s latest play, that are so modern and so meta that they seem as if they stem straight from the mouth of the scriptwriter himself -plus some that seem as if they stem straight from a secondary historical source such as Wikipedia – though one in particular stood out the strongest, a simple line but a rather relevant one; ‘Well, it will get better’. Taken in the context of the play it works well in a number of different ways, among them an apology from the actors and crew who, it must be said, didn’t do the best that they could do during this premiere performance.

Strangely enough though I would list this as more strength than flaw, for the script is strange in that all these flaws felt at home within it, akin to all the scripted jokes around them. They worked so well in fact that I am again suspicious, much like I was after last night’s improv show, that they aren’t in fact scripted themselves; I’m not certain that they didn’t occasionally crack on purpose in some perverse commentary on the fictional status of the show itself. Three times actors called out for lines and were instantly granted them by a booming godlike voice from above – perhaps Lonergan’s own – all the other actors on the stage spinning around suspiciously and drawing their swords at the strange sound. The same thing went for whenever an idiotic audience member would receive a phone call – really, how hard is it to turn off? – the knights would swing towards it and swear, having never heard such tones before in their life. Similarly one characters sentimental soliloquy regarding his estranged father – already a piece of meta-humour due to the way he broke into it during an otherwise realistic conversation, subtly skewering this style of writing – should have faltered when the foot-piece of his full plate Armour fell off, but instead he weaved it in to his words; remarking that his father was a poor blacksmith, almost as bad as the one that he has now while throwing the shrapnel off the side of the stage.

This line got one of the nights biggest laughs and deserving so if it was indeed authentic improv. It’s somewhat hard to know though because there were so many other occasions just like it that felt pre-planned, the whole play is similarly loose and self-aware: there are actors commenting on and critiquing their own lines – “Come on, these people have lives” one remarks when an another goes into an in-depth analysis of Italy’s mountainous geography – our reaction to them – the narrator welcomes the audience politely then tells us to ‘fuck off’ when one of her jokes fails to land – and the stage on which they take place – One knight comments on the poor construction of a now crushed castle, kicking a big stone barricade which then floats across the stage, made as it is of foam and then staring in awe as crew-members come out to switch sets. So intriguing is the plays particular blend of irreverence and error that i am rather tempted to go and see it again to note the differences, though I am afraid how well it will play if they manage to pull it all off professionally.

I shouldn’t be though, because as funny as this play is it does provide more that puns and other low humor. I mentioned The Chaser earlier and that is mainly because the play also works as a political metaphor, it has a message and is as such making all of these comparisons for a reason. Sometimes the disparagement between current day and medieval life is simply mined for silly gags through name-checking – another thing that the play does so bluntly that it is obviously satirizing what it itself says – but at others there is a more serious purpose, such as when the Knights talk of the Arab’s; those cultured, book reading, liberal elitists that would never have the balls to for economically unstable, religiously driven splinter groups of soldiers like themselves. A blunt but observant comparison, something that can be said of nearly all of the likenesses that Lonergan draws here; the play is entirely factual -as those long stretches of text suggest – but it still fits beautifully over the top of the current cultural climate, more so than any constructed tale could.

The short second act really solidifies the stories metaphor, which was up until then a little meandering, by making the two knights into a clear avatar for American military might. They leave the collective headed by The Butcher from Geneva, go to war for god, elect a new more liberal leader of a minority race who promises to bring reform but then doesn’t only to have the land and people divided down the middle on the basis of nothing, for no point just politics. Catherine, the narrator, coyly remarks that there may be some current relevance in this turn of events and of course there is but I fear that the plays point is still somewhat lost in amongst the ludicrousness; I walked out knowing what the topic was, but not how Lonergan or I really felt about it. The earlier thematic efforts relating religion to the current depression are similarly vexed by the vivaciousness of their surroundings; you can glimpse the greatness of the idea but never quite grasp it.

As you can tell this is a divisive play and I consider myself to be rather divided by it (as the above ramblings suggest): how can I honestly say that Tate Donovan is terrific when he forgot a line completely and fumbled a few others? How can I say that this script is so strong when its structure is worse than scatter-shot, each scene more or less a skit they are so poorly attached? and how can i say that the play as a whole is so wonderful when the performance was so poorly executed? I shouldn’t be able to but I am, I really loved it, screw perfection (Though I should point out that Josh Hamilton’s Charlie Day-esque turn as the lead and the shows two ladies – Heather Burns and Halley Feiffer – were all flawless, as I’m sure were many of the stage crew). Another of those telling lines from late in the show, said by that newly elected leader after giving his first speech in office, summed Medieval up for me, pardon the rampant paraphrasing: “I went off script a little at the end there, that was all improvising… I may not have hit everything that I wanted to but it had the right style and tone… I was really happy with the tone”.

( If you think that this review is too random then don’t bother with seeing the show. It should serve as a good litmus test. Man i’m tired.)