I took a popular lecture course in college called "Nature and Human Nature in the Middle Ages." The class was popular for two reasons: one, it was team-taught by two very charismatic professors, and two, the readings were fun. This might come as a surprise to anyone who has made the necessary pilgrimage through at least a few of The Canterbury Tales, since - alack and weladay - for all his ribaldry, Chaucer can be a bit of a slog. And if you try to level the path by updating the English, as was done in my high school's dumbed-down edition of the Tales, you remove the only real reason to bother with Chaucer in the first place. However, many of the Medieval poems and stories we read in this particular course had been translated with brio into modern English, and they turned out to be extremely absorbing, often rather scatalogical tales of chivalry and courtship and mythical beasts. I enjoyed doing the reading assignments so much I felt like I was cheating, a little bit, by counting it as a class; when the class was over, I saved all my books so that I could return to them when I graduated and had time for leisure reading. I never did follow through on that, I now realize, but perhaps someday they'll make good bedtime stories for my kids?
One of the key concepts that those two charismatic professors tried to communicate about "Human Nature in the Middle Ages" was that the people of the Middle Ages weren't so very different from us. We enlightened 20th-century folks might think we invented the concept of gender studies, for example, but the anonymous author of Silence, a twelfth-century French narrative poem about a girl raised as a boy and her confusing (and confused) adventures, was way ahead of us. I bring all this up because Silence was adapted for the stage by Moira Buffini, and it won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (for the best play written in English by a woman... but you knew that already, didn't you?) in 1999. I confess that I would not have known this if it were not for The Roundtable Ensemble's current production of Silence, but this is a chance to make up for not knowing anything about this apparently important woman playwright, and I figured, if the play is half as entertaining as the poem, it would be worth seeing.
There is something refreshingly old-fashioned in the way Silence tells its story, start to finish, with no metatheatrical digressions or ironic asides to the audience. There are moments, here and there, where Buffini leans a little too hard on the Womyn's Issues in play, but for the most part she lets the story speak for itself, and in her hands it speaks very beautifully. In this production, though, it speaks a little too seriously: the performances are all excellent, and gratifyingly sincere (especially a very strong Greg Hildreth as Roger, the priest), but a lighter touch from director Suzanne Agins would have helped to keep things lively, especially during the draggy second act. Kelly Hutchinson, beautiful and regal and appealingly contemporary as Ymma (pronounced "Emma" - and may I take this opportunity to say that, unless your first language is Medieval French, it is not okay to name your child Ymma-pronounced-"Emma," so don't get any ideas) reminded me of Robin Wright (Penn) as Princess Buttercup in The Princess Bride, but not quite enough. The Artistic Director's note in the program describes the show as "hilarious," but I remember the poem as being a lot more fun than this.
The production and design elements also fail to set any particular mood or frame the story in any coherent way: the costumes are very good, the set and lighting design are fine, and the music is bad, but at no point do they seem to be working together, and so they give little support to the actors - who, it bears repeating, are excellent. There is a thrill in reading something written many hundreds of years ago and finding it still alive and relevant; there is a similar thrill in witnessing so many good and intelligent young actors bringing a story to life before you on one small stage. That alone is reason enough to see Silence.
For a change, my view was in no way restricted - the theatre (above the police station on West 54th St.) is small and the audience was smaller. But what a strange audience it was. Aside from a group of people who were clearly friends of one of the actors, and who giggled every time he appeared, my fellow audience members seemed so disconnected from what was happening onstage that I began to wonder whether I'd stumbled into a special performance for the catatonic. I was the only one in the room who applauded when the lights went down at the end of the first act; when the lights came up in the house, the people around me were confused about whether or not the play was over. A couple behind me finally settled on No, it's just intermission, but the man decided he was "bored" (he announced this loudly, twice), so they left anyway. The people next to them stayed in their seats until the second act started; 60 seconds into the first scene, they all got up, noisily, and left. And then, 2 minutes after that, they all came back, just as noisily. ...I don't know. Then two women from that same group had this conversation, re: one of the actors onstage:
"What's he got on his feet?"
The audience didn't seem hostile, just completely uninvolved; it was as though the stage manager went to a nearby McDonald's and talked all the people killing time there into sitting around in the theatre instead. So, if you happen to be one of the 6 excellent actors (Hildreth, Hutchinson, Helen Coxe, Chris Kipiniak, Makela Spielman and Joe Plummer) who performed for that weirdly unresponsive audience last night, I apologize. It wasn't you, it was us. (And by "us" I mean "everybody but me." Naturally.)