Dallas — To act or not to act, that is the question, at least for out-of-work actors risking life and limb to put on a hurried scene or two before the authorities arrive to shut them down and haul them off to prison. That’s even faster and nastier than bad reviews! In The Droll, or a Stage Play about the END of Theatre, playwright Meg Miroshnik has fun with a play about players, reminding us that theater is always, in one profound sense, actors engaged in the magical process of embodying words into flesh to entice an audience to laugh, cry, sigh—and buy a ticket.
Directed with stripped-down elegance by Blake Hackler in its world premiere at Undermain Theatre, The Droll calls up a bizarre and austere moment in 17th century English history when the brief Puritan government banned theater as immoral, obscene, and downright pleasurable. Unemployed actors patched together funny, bawdy bits from Shakespeare, Fletcher and other earlier Renaissance playwrights that they performed in the streets. They made do with these “drolls” because the big London theaters were pulled down and anybody who tried to put on a show or watch one was whipped and fined.
Striding out onto Robert Winn’s starkly empty wooden plank stage with a patched-together curtain behind it, the sneering Puritan Roundhead (Anthony L. Ramirez, eyes aglitter and wearing a pristine white ruff) scolds the audience surrounding him on three sides, and spits in place of saying the words “king” and “crown” to indicate how filthy is the monarchy, in person or in plays. Something’s gotta be rotten somewhere.
A young orphan named Nim Dullyn (a lithe-limbed, stage-struck Katy Tye) falls breathless onto the scene and begs to be taken in by a ragtag acting troupe on the run near the outskirts of London. The fun of the play is in the variety of these characters, as embodied by as “compleat” a cast of thespians as you could hope to see on any stage.
Forthright and earthy Rhonda Boutté is Margaret Killingworth, the Company Manager, planning the travel and intent on the safety of her outlaw troupe. Initially suspicious of young Nim’s overtures, childless Margaret’s maternal instincts are stirred by the boy’s pluck and passion for theater.
Stocky, loquacious ladies’ man Jack Greenman is her aging husband James Killingworth, the Prime Actor, a man famed for his tragedian skills, and the keeper of the company’s prized box of props containing the crown of Prince Hamlet, the role everybody yearns to play—and the symbol the Roundhead Fundamentalist plots to get his hands on.
Cheeks glowing with rouge and thin as a reed, Justin Locklear is the seductive embodiment of Thomas Dread Rosey, the Player of Women’s Parts, easily seduced himself when young Nim flatters him about his performance as Gertrude. An actor who appears virile whatever gender he finds himself in, Locklear swoons delicately, but clearly has a trick up his skirt.
Bluff and cocky Alex Organ is William Rifel, the eager Supporting Actor hot to step into the Prime role if Killingworth stumbles—and if they can manage to mount a Hamlet this side of the whipping block. Onto the scene steps flagrant and furious Jenny Ledel as Doll, The Tart who brazens her way into the troupe through sex and slyly ominous hints of past carnal connections.
This rich brew of characters is trotted through a makeshift plot about the struggle for Hamlet’s crown, the play’s sometimes touching, sometimes gloriously bawdy scenes patched together in the manner of drolls of past eras.
Miroshnik, whose The Fairtytale Lives of Russian Girls was at Undermain last season, and company have a couple of clever links to the present. Nim carves a figure of the Prime Actor, who’s flattered by the “action figure” which he strokes while declaring, “What a piece of work is man.” Nim plans to sell these figures en masse and create “not just an audience, but consumers.” In the same vein, Nim acknowledges we are “needful of a social net,” and they all throw playbills into the audience, and shout to everyone to “bring a friend.” There’s a reference to comps, too. And it’s fun to count all the references to other Shakespeare plays, including Midsummer, As You Like It and The Tempest.
The larger problem with plays about actors, like poems about poetry, is that they can turn in on themselves, leaving the audience or reader out of the insider language. Amanda Capshaw’s bright and vaguely decadent costumes are enticing, and Steve Woods’ faux primitive lighting hits the spotlight just right. But despite the earnest efforts of the brave troupe, the play itself doesn’t feel quite fully found. Or maybe I just missed the implications of the END.
» Read our interview with playwright Meg Miroshnik