(l to r) Matthew Jeffers, Evelyn Spahr, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, Vinie Burrows, and Rob Campbell in ‘Light Shining in Buckinghamshire’ at New York Theatre Workshop. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Judging by the number of empty seats following the intermission of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, now at the New York Theatre Workshop, this revival of Caryl Churchill’s (Cloud Nine, Top Girls) didactic 1976 play about mid-17th-century British history isn’t about to win any popularity awards.
Light Shining is an ambitious two hour and 40-minute work expressing political and religious ideas related to the English Civil War (1642-1651) and the years leading up to the Restoration (1660).
It grew out of three weeks of improvisation-based workshops with Britain’s Joint Stock Theatre Company, extensive research, nine weeks of writing, and six weeks of rehearsal. But it took 15 years before the New York Theatre Workshop (in 1991, when it was on Perry Street) offered its American premiere. It’s easy to see why.
So much of the play requires prior historical knowledge (spot quiz: what’s a Leveller? A Digger? A Ranter? Answer: protest groups during the Interregnum), or is buried in stylistic tics, that non-British audiences (and perhaps Brits as well) are likely to wish more light was shining on it.
Churchill’s rambling, essentially plotless narrative uses a pseudo-Brechtian, episodic structure of 22 titled scenes in which original dialogue mingles with documented texts. Some scenes are vignettes, like one in which two women (Evelyn Spahr and Vinie Burrows, still a vibrant presence at 89) look into a mirror for the first time, one in which a butcher (Evelyn Spahr) rails against overfed customers who eat too much meat or another in which a starving woman (Spahr) abandons her baby.
Other scenes are extended, the most notable being a docudrama condensed from the minutes of 1647’s Putney Debates. It involves Oliver Cromwell (Burrows, in one of several unexpected casting choices) and other historical figures wrangling in prolix 17th-century language over the creation of a new constitution. Ultimately, of course, the revolutionary ardor of the participants’ intentions fizzles into failure. Lesson learned.
Light Shining tries to cover more than its time on stage can comfortably bear or an audience absorb. It raises issues of property, political representation, suffrage, egalitarianism, liberty, anarchy, anti-Catholicism, wealth and privilege, poverty, communal sharing, God, the afterlife, Christ and the Antichrist, the war in Ireland, Saxons and Normans, monarchy, and even land reclamation.
Imaginative director Rachel Chavkin (Hadestown, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812) works overtime to establish a sense of immediacy so a modern audience can connect with these historical and intellectual complexities. She does wonders in making her American-accented actors find understanding and conviction in their often difficult lines. Many spectators, though, will still find themselves in the dark.
Riccardo Hernandez’s stripped-to-the-bone set (like so many at the NYTW) is a wood-planked floor surrounded by raw brick walls; a light haze hovers for Isabella Byrd’s lights to pierce, while Mikaal Sulaiman fills the space with a fine assortment of mood-inducing, thumping, rumbling sounds. Perhaps to assist us in following the dialogue, a digital screen showing the text in red letters hangs on the upstage wall; it’s hard not to be distracted by it, no matter how well you hear.
A talented company, racially and physically diverse, of four men (Rob Campbell, Matthew Jeffers, Mikéah Ernest Jennings, and Gregg Mozgala) and two women play over 20 roles, none more than stick figures to illustrate different points. Regardless, keeping track of who’s who is often confusing.
In Act I, they’re dressed in Toni-Leslie James’s simplified period costumes (including ruffs for the debates). For no clear reason, they use hand mics, which have become something of a postmodern directorial cliché. By Act II, set in 1660, when the monarchy was restored, the clothes, which have been slowly evolving, complete their transformation into contemporary jeans and the like; the mics are gone but the surtitles linger on.
If you pay close attention, you’ll appreciate some of Churchill’s political, economic, and religious observations. And you’ll definitely pick up a thing or two. Nonetheless, as the play meanders toward its conclusion in an endless tavern scene about the presence of God and the second coming of Christ, you may wish he’d show up already. You may likewise wonder why one of those empty, post-intermission seats isn’t yours.
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
New York Theatre Workshop
79 E. 4th St., NYC
Through June 3
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).