By Karen Isaacs
Yale Rep is known for presenting world premieres and it is opening its season with another premiere by Sarah Ruhl, who was presented numerous shows at the Rep – The Clean House, Eurydice, Passion Play, The Three Sisters and Dear Elizabeth.
This time in Scenes from Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince, she has juxtaposed two historic periods and two sets of famous people that do not on the surface seem related and yet she draws interesting parallels. Like any world premiere, this play needs work but has many promising elements.
The first time period is England in the 1600s; it focuses on the deposing of Charles the First and his beheading which led to the rule by Oliver Cromwell. In 1660, Charles’ son regained the throne and ruled as Charles the Second. In this we have both Kings as well as three other characters: a whipping boy who took the corporal punishment the Prince deserved, the Groom of the Stool whose role seemed to be to clean the King’s rear after elimination; and Catherine of Braganza who married Charles II.
We keep switching between that period and the last few decades where we meet President George H. W. Bush, his two sons George W. and Jeb, and their wives, Barbara, Laura and Columba. In this part of the plot we open in 1994 with George, who is the older son, announcing he is running for Governor of Texas even though he knew that Jeb was planning to run for Governor of Florida. George, who apparently feels his parents favor the more intellectual Jeb, has no compunction stepping on his brother’s limelight. Of course, George wins and Jeb loses. In 1998 he wins reelection while Jeb also wins. From there we move into George’s presidency and later Jeb’s recent campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.
What creates some of the humor and reinforces some of the points about sibling rivalry, friendship and dynasties, is how the playwright has assigned roles to actors.
Thus Prince Charles’ whipping boy also plays Jeb Bush. Charles I is also George H. W. Bush, Charles II is George Bush and in perhaps the funniest juxtaposition, the Groom of the Stool becomes Bush political operative Karl Rove.
The very opening as staged by director Mark Wing-Davey immediately sets the mood. We see a elegant court dance and gowns that reflect the past, but soon the cast is doing a Texas line dance the costumes come off to reveal more modern clothing. We meet George W. Bush welcoming us to his Presidential Library and his first art exhibit – the portraits all seem very similar.
From there the two periods and the characters are continually changing though not interacting with each other.
In a copy of the script, Ruhl refers to two quotes on the front piece – one by Thornton Wilder and one by Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward. That quote says “We elect a king for four years.”
But even without seeing or hearing that quote on the stage, it is clear the parallels that Ruhl wishes to draw.
During the first act, Charles I is in political crises with Parliament and the people for maintaining the concept of the divine right of kings and his Catholic religion: he is overthrown by a coalition of Calvinists and Puritans. He was tried and convicted of treason and beheaded in 1649. The play shows us a man of principles who orders his son to flee and save himself. At his beheading, he is composed and calm.
But the English court seems tame compared to the rivalry between Jeb and George W. It is illustrated by a pantomimed no-holes-barred game of tennis between the two brothers and their parents. Later we see Jeb accusing George of borrowing lines for his campaign announcement, demeaning him by referring to him as “his little brother” and other incidents. George appears like an immature teenager tormenting his brother for no reason. But he is also obviously trying to get the attention and acclaim of his parents; George H.W. once said about his son’s run for Governor that he thought that before running for a public sector job, a person should have done something in the private sector.
The first act ends with Laura Bush defending her husband’s action on the morning of Sept. 11; he was reading to an elementary school class and did not leave until he finished. She also says that when women sought the vote, it was said they would outlaw war.
Act two, opens with Charles II coronation where he tells the crowd they have tried
democracy and it closed the theaters and produced boring literature. They wanted his bloodlines. Of course, we segue way into George Bush’s administration and his determination to avenge his father’s “defeat” by Saddam Hussein – there’s mentions of weapons of mass destruction, the Florida presidential vote and more. At court we see Barnaby, the grown up whipping boy, court the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza for the king, while falling in love with her. The act continues with Jeb’s marriage to the Catholic Columba and his truncated presidential bid.
Like many plays still being refined, there are a lot of ideas in the piece – some better developed than others. Is she talking about America’s desire for royalty? The tendency towards political dynasties – from the Roosevelts, Tafts, Kennedys and now the Bushes and Clintons? The role of the wife and mother in all of this? The ease of factual manipulation and deception?
All of these are present in the play and more. Some of her points are obvious due to the juxtaposition of character roles: Jeb Bush is his older brother’s whipping boy though more serious and intellectual; Karl Rove is in effect cleaning up the potential messes created by both Bush presidents; he does the dirty work including spreading rumors that Ann Richards, the incumbent Governor of Texas is a lesbian.
Sometimes the symbolism is heavy handed. Laura Bush, and by implication all women, cleans up the blood spilled by Charles I execution. Do we really need that graphic a reminder that it is women who often not only suffer most during war but also bear the burden of carrying on after it? The tennis games – both the modern version and the older “court tennis” which is a much more complex ancestor of our current lawn tennis, the official name for what most of us know as tennis – provide their own symbolic meanings.
The set by Marina Draghici is simple and flexible to move between centuries and locations. Her costumes are for the 21st century and reflect the background of the Bush family, what we would call “preppy” attire. For the Stuarts the dress is more extravagant and regal.
The scenic design is aided by the projections by Yana Birÿkova and the lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Choreographer Michael Raine has created not only the Stuart court formal dances and the Texas line dances but also choreographed the pantomime tennis game between the Bush family. It is spectacular.
Overall the acting is excellent. Greg Keller plays Charles II and George W. as a person who does not recognize the repercussions of his decisions on others – either for his whipping boy when the Prince or his brother as George W. He creates a sense of wounded entitlement. Danny Wolohan as both the whipping boy and Jeb has the “put upon” attitude but evolve into characters who are more insightful than the men who manipulate them.
The actors all resemble the characters they are portraying and the skillful wigs and makeup help accentuate the resemblance. All of the actors have managed to capture the essence of these real people in their speech patterns and mannerisms. These are not imitations of them, but suggestions of them.
Angel Desai (Laura Bush), Mary Shultz (Barbara Bush) and Keren Lugo (Catherine of
Braganza and Columbia Bush) show us how strong these women were. It may not appear that they have power, but you understand that they are the hands that are controlling the destiny of the families. We may always have known that Barbara Bush was the power behind the throne, but Shultz makes it very clear all the while smiling and looking like a grandmother.
Ryder Smith does an excellent job as both Charles I and George H. W. Bush, showing quiet dignity but resolve. The scenes where Charles is arrested and then beheaded were touching.
In this political season, you may think you do not want more politics. But in Sarah Ruhl’s play you will find a humor and humanity that is lacking in today’s politics. Even Donald Trump makes a brief appearance.
Scenes from Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince is at Yale’s University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven through Saturday, Oct. 22. For tickets call 203-432-1234 or visit Yale Rep.
This content courtesy of Shore Publishing Weeklies and zip06.com.