Road to Valhalla
Ethelred the Unready is ready for his close-up. Shakespeare got a lot of mileage out of the feuds and foibles of many crowned heads in British history, mainly your sequentially numbered Richards and Henrys. But until Silence, the comedy by Brit playwright Moira Buffini that's been held over for a few more days at Undermain Theatre, the life of medieval Saxon King Ethelred didn't warrant much ink.
Silence fills in the blanks with a broadly acted and surprisingly funny take on a real episode in mean old Ethelred's reign. Sometime shortly before A.D. 1000, Ethelred, who'd come to the throne at the age of 10 when his mother murdered his half-brother, married the daughter of the Duke of Normandy. Following their wedding, he ordered the massacre of all the Vikings living in the realm, provoking a long war with the blond, Odin-worshiping people from the north.
The gimmick of the play provides the reason, however fictionalized, why Ethelred thought the worst of the Norse. In an episode as bitter and twisted as an installment of Blackadder, the king (played with exaggerated scowls and sneers by Bruce DuBose) orders the Duke's daughter, young and feisty Ymma of Normandy (Allison Darby), to marry the 14-year-old Lord of Cumbria, a spunky but prepubescent Viking warrior named Silence (Suzanne Thomas).
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On their wedding night, as Ymma reluctantly attempts to consummate the forced union, she discovers that Silence is actually a girl who has been raised as a boy. Unaware of all matters bird, bee and "thingy'' related, Silence gets the lowdown from Ymma, who turns out to be a premillennial feminist with a "past" and perhaps a whisper of Sappho in her sexual urges.
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Ymma sees opportunity in keeping up the gender masquerade. Men have all the rights in medieval England. Women are afforded less respect than livestock.
"Women are foolish,'' says Roger, the king's hapless monk (David Stroh). "It tells us so in our holy books.''
Silence, in every sense, is Ymma's ticket to freedom. Back in Cumbria, as the Lady of the house, Ymma will be free to do what she wants. But if Silence's biological secret is revealed, the marriage will be annulled and Ymma will be forced to wed godawful Ethelred, who spends most of his days whining and ruling the country from beneath his filthy bedclothes. When Ethelred dares to suggest a little slap and tickle with pretty Ymma, she decks him with a right cross.
This sets up the conflict of Silence, and Act 2 goes into tried-and-true road movie mode. The young newlyweds must maintain their ruse, flee Ethelred's reach and get back up north. In a rickety cart they make the trip accompanied by Roger the monk, Ymma's nurse Agnes (Rhonda Boutte) and Eadric Longshaft (Todd Haberkorn), a strong but spooky knight who believes he possesses the power of "mind speech'' and whose shaft grows longer the more he stares at Ymma. Eadric also is a big fan of hallucinogens, and the funniest scene in the play involves him spiking the travelers' stew with 300 "magic woodland fungi."
This play is nigh on impossible to categorize. Some moments feel like an overacted "Theodoric of York" sketch from Saturday Night Live. Then there'll be a scene as funny as Monty Python's quest for the Holy Grail. When they hit the road, it becomes The Princess Bride. But Silence also feels thoroughly contemporary when it makes noise about some serious political issues concerning same-sex marriage, feminism, xenophobia and end-times theology.
Undermain director Katherine Owens has successfully interpreted the many themes of the play by lightening up on the heavy stuff and letting the actors get their laughs without making them play to the punchlines. She's also used Undermain's difficult, claustrophobic space with great efficiency. The crumbling pillars, low ceiling and musty smell in this theater work in Silence to evoke the cold, dank halls of a medieval castle.
Owens wisely allows the cast of six to perform in a variety of acting styles. Bruce DuBose, wearing a tin crown, camps it up, taking huge chomps out of the scenery as King Ethelred. Declaring war on the Vikings, he delivers a Hitlerian speech that's silly but chilling. "Sometimes to kill is not enough. One has to torture first," he tells his troops.
Todd Haberkorn is deadly serious--and really, really funny--as the lovestruck, frustrated, 'shroom-munching Eadric.
As Silence, Suzanne Thomas is an earnest and energetic gamine, strangely believable as both a boy and girl. David Stroh is wonderful as Roger the agoraphobic monk, a goofy role that exists mainly to point out the differences in the new Christianity of the Middle Ages and the old paganism. As Ymma's servant, Rhonda Boutte makes a sharp turn from incidental narrator in the first act into sassy, liberated seductress in the second.
Only young Allison Darby comes up short acting-wise. Her Ymma isn't as magnetic or shrewd an ingenue as she should be, and Darby tends to fly into hysteria with all the subtlety of a mad scene on a Mexican soap opera. Playwright Buffini writes in a recurring joke for Ymma, having her sum up each new village she arrives in with the phrase "What a dump!" That line, of course, should echo Bette Davis, but Darby doesn't seem to get the reference across, which denies the audience the fun of laughing at and with it.
Ymma does get to speak perhaps the most telling and politically significant line in Silence. Having ditched her dresses for men's clothes during the road trip, Ymma dreams aloud of a day when women are deemed equal with men, which would give women the right to drive their own wagons.
"One day, maybe 100 years in the future, maybe 200," Ymma says, staring into the middle distance, "all women will be driving loaded carts up hills."
You said it, sister.
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