Scenes From Court Life
By Marlene S. Gaylinn
The full title of this new play by Sarah Ruhl, which is currently playing at Yale Repertory Theatre, is: “Scenes From Court Life or the Whipping Boy and his Prince.” The work compares the Bush family dynasty with England’s, Stuart monarchy, and Jeb Bush is being portrayed as his brother’s “Whipping Boy.” The play might have more impact if it related to our former President’s larger assemblage of whipping boys – advisors who cleaned up their leader’s “dreck,”and took the blame for his wrong doings. But alas, the play does not go that far into politics.
The program notes indicate that when Ruhl started out, it looked as if we might have a Bush/Clinton election, and that’s why she chose to concentrate on the Bush family dynasty. The resulting, inherited power, for better or worse seems secondary to the play. Even though a scene depicted that King Charles I lost his bloodied head for making the wrong moves, it’s like “Alice in Wonderland” and the saying, “…Off with their heads.” So, what?
Speaking of “moves” or “strategies,” while power is often likened to a game of chess, Ruhl uses the “tennis court” as her opening metaphor. The Bush's are avid tennis players and the terms and other refinements of this sport date back to the royal courts of Europe -- particularly in France and England. In the U.S., tennis and golf are sports that until recently were usually associated with the wealthy, upper class and restricted, country clubs -- our substitute for royalty.
The production, which features a stellar cast under the direction of Mark Wing-Davey, begins with a pleasant, harpsichord concert rendered by Angel Desai, who doubles as Laura Bush, and also serves as Music Director. When the curtain opens on a dimly lit stage, we have the acting ensemble performing a courtly minuet in 15th Century English costumes. Soon the dancing turns into a lively, Texas Two-Step complete with strutting cowboys holding onto their belt buckles as if they were shining headlights. The next thing you notice is that the music has suddenly stopped and the scene has changed. The Bush family is playing a very serious game of tennis. “Barbara Bush” (Mary Shultz), her husband, “George H.W. Bush” (T. Ruder Smith), and their two sons, “George W.” (Greg Keller) and “Jeb” (Danny Wolohan) compete furiously as imaginary balls are whacked across the net in precise rhythm, thanks to sound designer, Shane Rettig and choreographers, Michael Raine and Meggi Sweeney Smith (Baroque dance specialty).
Since we are all familiar with the Bush’s, it’s amazing to see how closely the actors have captured each family member’s speech, and demeanor (dialect coach is Jane Guyer Fujita).The innovative scenery and lovely costumes, which quickly change style and often merge with the Stuart and Bush dynasties, are by Mirina Draghici.
Running more or less parallel to the dynasty theme are members from the court of England’s Charles I and his son, Charles II.The Royals are also vying for power -- but on a more ancient tennis court. The same cast plays the main members of the English dynasty. T.Ryder Smith (H.W.Bush) is now Charles I, Greg Keller (G.W. Bush) is Charles II, and Danny Mollohan (Jeb) is the unrelated whipping boy to the Stuart Prince. Keren Lugo plays Catherine of Braganza (Charles II’s wife) as well as Columba Bush (Jeb Bush’s Latino wife). Andrew Weems plays the “Tutor,” “Inigo Jones,” an ancient Welch architect, and “Bonnie Flood,” GW’s art teacher.
As the title indicates, the “Whipping Boy” should play a very important role in this play, but somewhere along the line, this concept got a bit muddled when making the family dynasty comparison. Because he was not of royal blood, this innocent playmate could be whipped for the young Prince’s misdeeds. In other words, because the future King was considered holy, he could never be punished.The main point, which became lost in the royal trappings, is that in a broader sense, nothing has changed in our democratic society.The rich and powerful can do no wrong, and like the saying, “special strokes for special folks,”the elite manage to have their own whipping boys, and can get away with outrageous deeds without punishment. Simply bend society’s rules and say the magic words, “I’m sorry,”and -- all is forgiven.These powerful, untouchable culprits can afford to make mistakes and go on with their lives as if nothing had happened, while the majority suffers for their trusted leader’s misdeeds.
Another colorful character in this work is Jeff Biehl who plays “Groom of the Stool” and is also cast as the “Executioner” of Charles I. In the English court, the “Groom of the Stool” was the son of a nobleman who acted as personal secretary and advisor, and oddly enough, was also honored by being allowed to attend to the King’s bowel movements. This informal ceremony took place on a specially designed chair, which was put into action -- for a King with a very constipated disposition. This scene, reminiscent of Moliere’s comedy/satire, “The Imaginary Invalid,” is repeated twice during the play –just for fun.
Incidentally, if you ever wondered where the word “stool” came from, you might inquire even further by looking up Mr. Thomas Crapper -- born in London, 1836. And, speaking of “Cabbages and Kings,” the WC (water closet) as it’s called all over Europe, was where Queen Elizabeth I performed her own royal business. In fact, this first toilet may have been invented by her majesty in mid-1500. And, for your further information about the royal throne, it is said that today’s Queen Elizabeth has honored a Lady in Waiting to carry her private toilet seat wherever she goes.
This is an amusing, cleverly written work, but it needs more focus. We were disappointed by the play’s development and weak climax. Instead of concentrating on ancient architecture, Bush’s taste in paintings, or illustrating that brother Jeb turned out to be his whipping boy, we were anticipating that the final spotlight might be turned on the former President’s administrators. After all, some very prominent people became GW’s whipping boys as well.
Plays to October 22 Tickets: 20-432-1234
This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” Oct/2016