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A CurtainUp Review

The Book of Wren
By Les Gutman

There is something to be said for a good fable every now and then. The Book of Wren, described in press releases as "a fable for the 90's set in the Medieval woods of Wales," has the feel of both now and then. It is most fable-like, and at its best, when it stays in those woods. Its many charms start to dissipate when it ventures out of its ancient milieu.

The beauty of a fable is that it allows one to consider a set of circumstances untethered to any reality, and thereby to embrace a moral to which one might otherwise be resistant.  

The Miranda Theatre Company sets the stage for such an other-worldly engagement. For the excursion into the ancient Welsh rainforest, Zeke Leonard has outfitted The Book of Wren not in lush greens but in muted burlap. The set telegraphs the primitive references, and yet refashions dexterously to suggest the various scenes (aided splendidly by the excellent lighting designs of Scott Poitras). Intentionally or not, it even conjures up our sense of smell: we are transported into this musty world as soon as we enter the theater. Eric Shim has designed sound effects and music that more than amply situate the action. And the "of the woods" costumes (by Rodney Munoz and Nan Young) are thoroughly appropriate.

I mention all of this so early both because it is stunning and also by way of contrast with elements of Bronwen Denton-Davis's script and Valentina Fratti's direction. Both allow the play to wander between the then and the now and, in doing so, to undermine the force of the fable.

Denton-Davis starts well enough. Wisely choosing to avoid a medieval vernacular, her primary language is modern, but cast in a formalized, somewhat stilted style. (We might associate this with the versions of fairy tales that were read to us as children, or even the Bible.) But what medieval person would be told to "high tail it"? It's perplexing why she felt the need to introduce starkly inappropriate contemporary vernacular and even slang in the dialogue. Anachronisms succeed as a source of laughs, and we all like a good laugh, but not when it trespasses. It's a shame the playwright and director couldn't avoid the temptation.

Fratti compounds the problem by seemingly permitting cast members to choose the century in which they wish to deliver their lines. While some (notably, Tracy Sallows, Robert Ross and Jeffrey Hayenga) are consistent with the play (previously mentioned detours notwithstanding), the husband and wife characters of Alec and Dorie Lightly (Ben Sheaffer and Hilary Howard) seem to have wandered in from an episode of the TV sitcom Friends, and Michael Etheridge (playing the Abbot, Lucien Morot) seems to have difficulty finding any voice with which he is comfortable. (For the record, absent these and some inexplicable blocking problems in the first scene, Fratti's direction is quite fine and harmonious.)

Wren is at its core a calibrated examination of good and evil. It is laid out within the context of Roman Catholicism, and peers heavily into the Church's darkest corners: the Crusades, the Inquisition and, more generally, the position to which it relegates women (with hints as to why). The Church is presented through a three characters: the evil Morot, who is driven by a lust for earthly rather than heavenly rewards; a young, well-meaning but gullibly loyal priest, Father Godwin (Ross); and a wise cook named Moss (Hayenga), who has found a physically comfortable home in the Church even though his unblemished morality causes him to march to the beat of a different drummer.

The events through which the story is quite elegantly told revolve around Dorie's visit to a mysterious women, Madlin of Wren (Sallows), who is said to have healing powers. Dorie is pregnant, and turns to Madlin much as a woman today might turn to what we would call a "women's health center". The "fragile" church views Madlin, whose generations-old "secrets" were passed to her from her Persian mother, as a witch, a heretic, a soothsayer. A tightly conceived tale plus a startling coincidence makes for riveting, suspenseful storytelling that is carefully woven with Godwin's underlying spiritual journey, with Moss as his guide.

Sallows and Hayenga render especially effective performances and, with Robert Ross's well-considered performance as well, overcome weaknesses in the remainder of the cast.

Writing plays about inherently controversial religious issues can be a thankless task. Denton-Davis has discovered a path that combines the broad history of the Church with the weaknesses of a particular cleric to reveal sources of religious antagonism for which we find virtually-unaltered parallels today. The strength and significance of these parallels, and the lessons to be learned from them, are best communicated when they are at their most subtle. This is a notion only partly realized here. This world premiere represents an impressive start.

by Bronwen Denton-Davis 
Directed by Valentina Fratti 
with Michael Etheridge, Jeffrey Hayenga, Hilary Howard, Jon Malmed, Christopher Peterson, Robert Ross, Tracy Sallows and Ben Sheaffer 
Set Design: Zeke Leonard 
Lighting Design: Scott Poltras 
Costume Design: Rodney Munoz and Nan Young 
Sound Design: Eric Shim 
Miranda Theatre, 259 West 30th Street (7/8 AV) (212) 268-9829 Ext. 1 
opened January 19, 1999 closes January 31, 1999 
Seen January 15, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman January 20, 1999

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