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A CurtainUp Review
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire

You great Curmudgeons, you hang a man for stealing, when you yourselves have stolen from your brethren all land and creatures-— from a Diggers pamphlet.
Light Shining in Buckinghamshire
Matthew Jeffers, Evelyn Spahr, Mikeah Ernest Jennings, Vinie Burrows, Rob Campbell (Photo: Joan Marcus)
If you could build a new government from scratch, what would it look like? Such was the question confronted by British Parliamentarians in the mid-1600s, after an outbreak of Civil War that led to the imprisonment of King Charles I. It was, as Caryl Churchill illustrates in the historical fantasia Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, a time of great pain and uncertainty, but also of exciting possibility. For a brief moment, there seemed to be no bounds to what the revolution might accomplish.

Light Shining. . . primarily dramatizes the Putney Debates, the central series of conversations focused on negotiating between several Parliamentarian factions to draft a new constitution. It also nods towards the cost of social upheaval, and reckons with the possibility for resistance movements to fail (as the revolution it depicts did).

I don't use the word "resistance" by accident. This production, which marks the first time New York Theater Workshop has revisited an individual play (it originally produced the New York premiere of Light Shining. . . in 1991), is tailored to be of-the-moment, tapping into current anxieties about how a government treats its citizens and what a populace owes its leaders.

In addition to the pertinence of the actual writing, design choices make this particularly clear: Toni-Leslie James's costumes start off period but morph into more modern dress throughout, and Riccardo Hernandez's scenic design incorporates an LED open-captioning system (the show's flashiest design component) that is as much an accessibility device as a physical reminder of the modern era in which the production takes place.

But if this production of Churchill's play is supposed to be a match thrown into the powderkeg of the present day, the results are more muted than expected. Despite the direction of the talented Rachel Chavkin, Light Shining. . . lacks the explosive energy needed to sell a difficult play about revolution and rebellion, instead getting mired in heavy-handed, over-the-top language or lengthy digressions that feel less than pertinent in a more modern context.

It's worth noting that such complaints have been made about Light Shining in Buckinghamshire throughout its history, and the play has always been fairly polarizing. One of Churchill's earliest works, it was created in 1976 through an extended workshop with a group of actors at the Joint Stock Theatre Company in London. During its fairly short existence, Joint Stock became known for a unique method whereby writers collaborated with performers to create research-driven work. In this case, the documentation of this historical period served as inspiration for improvisations by the actors, from which Churchill then created and refined a text.

What came of all this was a series of short, vaguely connected episodes that are woven together with larger convocations that bring together all the varied viewpoints that shaped the Putney Debates. A similar episodic format was used in Churchill's previous New York outing, NYTW's 2014 production of Love and Information, but to snappier effect. (see link to this and other Curtainup reviews of Churchill's plays).

In that more recent play, the different segments were succinct and unique. But here, there's a historical record suggesting just enough of a linear narrative for the script to make a conscious decision not to follow it. Because of this, and probably exacerbated by the process of a whole company offering multiple interpretations on the same core texts and figures, the play tends towards thematic rambling, with a few ideas and conversations seeming to recur throughout without any additionally enlightening context.

The company here is a diverse group of performers, including actors of widely varying ages and a few with disabilities (which, along with the integration of captioning into the set design, exemplifies an admirable dedication to equal opportunity and accessibility on the part of Chavkin and NYTW). Some prove stronger monologists than others. Meanwhile, at a few points, Churchill's dense language is so thick that, in delivery, the words feel divorced from meaning, as demonstration feels more like recitation.

In a funny way, this mirrors the common accusations made so often in political debates today: that words offer an easy way around action. And maybe that's part of the point: this is not a glorified, glamorous depiction of a resistance. When the revolutionaries sit around kicking back beers, there's a clear cautionary message about our propensity to talk change to death.

But it's the context that is lacking here. We know the stakes of our own time. For all the discourse it packs in, this production of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire fails to convey the weight of the revolution and the conversations surrounding it. We have the rebels, but what's missing is the cause.

Links to other Caryl Churchill plays reviewed at Curtainup:
Love and Information
Cloud 9
Drunk Enough To Say I Love You?16
Escaped Alone
A Number
Far Away

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Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Cast: Vinie Burrows, Rob Campbell, Matthew Jeffers, Mikeah Ernest Jennings, Gregg Mozgala, Evelyn Spahr.
Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez
Costume design by Toni-Leslie James
Lighting design by Isabella Byrd
Sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman
Props by Noah Mease
Original music and music direction by Orion Johnstone
Stage Manager: Running time: 2 houRS and 50 minutes, 1 intermission.
New York Theatre Workshop Bowery
From 4/18/18; opening 5/07/18; closing 6/03/18.
Reviewed by Jacob Horn at 5/09 press performance

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