By Lucy Komisar
Kenneth Lonergan‘s spoof historical drama is a weird, funny, outrageous cartoon commentary on the bloody cruelty and crudeness of the 14th century, with subtle suggestions that “plus Òa change….” The language of the characters – mercenaries, nobles, high-ranking clerics – shifts between the “thee, thou” we expect medievals to speak, to pretentious academic locutions to the modern vernacular, including teen-talk, and the vocabulary of beer-drinking men, except that the women use as many four-letter words.
Lonergan, who directed his own play with panache and verve, starts it with a real horse whinny, then opens on a cartoon cutout of a castle. A mercenary comments that “I certainly wish our civilization will understand this phase in its development… Next comes the nation state.” And he wonders how long this Hundred Year‘s War is going to last.
The two mercenary pals are Sir Ralph (Josh Hamilton) and Sir Alfred (Tate Donovan) –both very fine — who murder and pillage as befits their métier. But Ralph raises ethical questions. He is upset when, after they kill a peasant couple, they hear a kid crying “Mommy.” Oh! As the violence is repeated, Ralph wonders, “Why is the world so full of cruelty and stupidity.”
Of course, such fine sensibilities elude the high representatives of the Church. In fact Cardinal Robert (John Pankow), the Pope‘s legate, hires the Breton mercenaries (this is all historically accurate) to put down a rebellion and lay waste to the Italian countryside, as he puts it. Meanwhile, at the Pope‘s palace at Avignon, there is giddy drinking and whoring.
The good times are displayed at a noble‘s banquet table where wife Margery (Halley Feiffer) expounds upon etiquette: ie, where to spit. The talented Feiffer is funny as a screamer. Other times she is an entertaining imitation of Sarah Palin.
And Heather Burns is a comic charm as Catherine of Siena, Italy‘s patron saint and “moral conscience.” There wasn‘t too much of that. Queen Joanna (Feiffer) is suspected of poisoning her husband. “That is bullshit,” she declares. “He had shellfish.” But to lighten things, Feiffer is also a jester: Two nuns walk into a cornfield….”
Anthony Arkin is very good as Pope Urban VI who signs his downfall when he decides to torture rival cardinals.
Seriously, this is about good vs evil in the cauldron of the Middle Ages. Albert declares, “Fighting, this is totally stupid.” Ralph replies, “Oh, well, someday things will be better.”
Seriously funny and imaginative, “Lonergan‘s Notes” could supplant Cliff Notes as history light. Except it‘s really history dark.
“Medieval Play.” Written & directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Signature Theatre Company at Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York City. 212-244-7529. Opened June 7, 2012; closes June 24, 2012.