If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
Bush Family Blasted in New Play at Yale
The Yale Repertory Theatre has opened its gala 50th anniversary season with the kind of play by a hot, contemporary author of which they are noted. This season’s world premiere is Sarah Ruhl’s ambitious, provocatively-titled “Scenes from Court Life, or the whipping boy and his prince”; a blistering satire about the George Bush political dynasty that probably won’t be happy news for Republicans. In this dreary election season, however, it seems something like a tonic.
Sarah Ruhl has had six of her plays produced at Yale thus far including “The Clean House” (2004), “Eurydice (2006) and the lovely “Dear Elizabeth” back in 2012. Her latest play is a bold and adventurous work which parallels the rise and fall of George H.W. Bush and his sons in American politics with that of Charles I and his son, Charles II in Stuart England. One set of actors portrays both family members in various stages of period costuming as the play progresses to the recent Republican primary where poor Jeb Bush is left in a puddle by then candidate Donald Trump.
“Scenes from Court Life” still seems like a work-in-progress as the play stalls and tends to repeat itself by act two and, hard as she may try, the parallels between the two time periods and families isn’t always apparent. Charles II’s “brother”, for instance, is the “whipping boy” of the title, not a blood relative at all and it seems a stretch by Ruhl to equate him with George and Jeb. The play can be dizzying with the numerous time shifts and its messy structure can get convoluted and over-stated. How refreshing it is, though, to sift through an overloaded original work like this, full of ideas and current commentary that is rich, funny and humane all at the same time.
Directed with deft precision by Mark Wing-Davey, the acting ensemble at Yale is nothing less than first-rate. As both Charles I and Bush 41, T. Ryder Smith preens like a prized peacock while both Danny Wolohan and Greg Keller excel as brothers Jeb and George (as well as their counterparts in England), mining every petty difference that lies between them to raucous effect. The playwright also manages to make room for some of the delicious malapropisms that made George 43 infamous. Mary Shultz is an earthy, sharp-tongued Barbara Bush and Angel Desai is beautifully restrained playing the mostly reactive role of Laura Bush. The ensemble breathlessly changes costumes and accents in what appears to be nanoseconds while the play careens and shifts like a runaway roller coaster with its incidental music and dance, supertitles hanging overhead and stage pictures that stun and delight.
In the cavernous University Stage space, Marina Draghici does wonders as both scenic and costume designer with strong support from Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting and Shane Rettig’s sound. Ms. Desai does double-duty as the play’s music director while Michael Raine creates individual choreography for both time periods. At the end, it may all be too much, but this inventive, timely satire still resonates as a new play very much worth seeing.
“Scenes from Court Life” continues at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through October 22. For further information call the theatre box office at: 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yale rep.org.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.