Reviewed by Will Stackman
When Moira Buffini wrote this dark comedy about the Dark Ages in London in 1999, the focus of "Silence" was on the underlying sense of doom about the approaching millennium as echoed in English history--taken rather loosely--around 1000 AD. A scant eight years into this new century the script has new and unexpected relevance. Rick Lombardo's strong production at the New Rep makes no special effort to underline any specifics but the excellent cast, impressive set, and detailed costuming create a reality for this improbable adventure, accenting Buffini's blend of period language and modern sensibilities.
The title character, Silence of Cumbria, played by Emily Sproch is the pagan teenage king of a small northwestern area of the British Isles in 999 AD. This juvenile ally of the Anglo-Saxon Kentish king--known to history as the Unready--is not the man he appears to be. Ethelred, ruler of most of southern Britain, plagued by neurotic fancies, is played with a flippant sense of power by Lewis D. Wheeler, seen on various local stages including in the Publick Theatre's much-heralded "Arcadia." But the center of the show is luminous Marianna Bassham, who was Ophelia last fall for the Actors' Shakespeare Project, as fiery Ymma of Normandy, exiled to Britain by her older brother. On a whim, Ethelred marries her to Silence, only to decide after an apocalyptic vision, that he wants her himself. Ymma's mother was a Saint, after all. The newlyweds flee for Silence's mythic Viking homeland.
On this improbable journey is the rest of the cast of six. IRNE winner Anne Gottlieb is Ymma's no-nonsense companion, Agnes. B.U.'s Michael Kaye is Father Roger, who's been trying to instruct Silence while becoming much distracted by Agnes, and IRNE winner, Christopher Michael Brody, who played the Thane for the New Rep's school tour last spring, as the King's enforcer Eadric Longshaft, who's changed sides. Also, he fell in lust for Ymma when he escorted her from Dover after she landed in Britain. The complications between Ymma, Silence, Eadric, Agnes, and Roger working their way slowly North are the center of the second act, in counterpoint to Ethelred's pursuit of them during which this feckless tyrant becomes more confident and merciless.
The third act of what has become a tragicomedy resolves the many threads of this mini-saga, with one death, an elopement, and Ymma's marriage--a historical fact--to Ethelred. This Norman became the virtual ruler when she married Canute the last Viking King of Britain and was the mother of Edward the Confessor who followed him. Of course her family, descended from Christian Viking's, came in 1066 AD to take over the island from Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king, shortly after her death, but that's another tale. Buffini exercises the traditional storyteller's right to embellish the vague facts of history to make her complex point about political power, sexual politics, and individual drive. Her title after all is short for "Silence is power", or "what they don't know, can't hurt you"--perhaps.
Artistic director Rick Lombardo pulled together another stellar production at the New Rep, starting with a superior script and strong local cast. Designer Cristina Todesco has created an interest and effective unit set which looms over the action. Effects include a pool of real water downstage left, snow and rain neatly confined to center stage, and a functional cart to take the adventurers into the North. Christopher Ostrom's lighting delineates the many scenes and the changing seasons, from summer to fall to winter. Costumer Frances Nelson McSherry captures the Dark Ages--and the author's requirements--with effective garments that complete the tone of the show. Ymma's changing and often confining garments become another metaphor in the script's poetic complex. The production is further supported by the director's sound design featuring electronic percussion.
This unique play had a brief successful run in NYC a few seasons ago and should be better known. Perhaps graduate theatre programs will discover Buffini and her interesting plays. The New Rep continues to bring new scripts to the stage through their New Voices series, which winds up Feb. 19th with Wendy Kesselman's "The Black Monk", a chamber musical based on a Chekhov short story, featuring Austin Pendleton. The New Rep's next mainstage show is Pendleton's "Orson's Shadow," which had a reading here several seasons ago at their old home in Newton.