LETTERS TO EDITOR
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The Lady's Not For Burning
by Laura Hitchcock
Those who fell in love with the epigrammatic lyric beauty of Christopher Fry's verse drama when it first made a stunning debut in 1948 will be glad to know that, despite an occasional precious moment, it stands the test of time. This may be because the viewer matured or because the times find relevance in the story of a disillusioned veteran. Returned soldier Thomas Mendip wants to be hanged until, in one of Fry's most graceful axioms, he is wooed from his aptitude for death by being happier, specifically wooed by Jennet Jourdemayne, a witch on her way to the stake.
Lady would seem a surprising choice for Charles Marowitz's Malibu Stage Company. Marowitz began his career collaborating with Peter Brook on the Theatre of Cruelty and capped a life in the theatre as actor/director/playwright/author and journalist by forming his own company in 1990. In 1998 they acquired and converted a disused Lutheran church which seems an apt setting for the wry spirituality of Fry's play.
Although it's set in the Middle Ages, the now 94-year-old Fry told Marowitz in a written interview (published in the program and worth the price of admission alone) that the play is based on his memories of World War I veterans as tramps in Army great coats and their real horror of mankind.
Fry uses his comedy to comment on a conventional hypocritical post-war society that has no use for veterans, marries for money, overlooks crimes when expedient and condemns a girl who lives alone and dabbles in science,
He paints character with a many-splendored pen. Mendip, the veteran, is death-bent because now all roads are uncommonly flat and all hair stands on end. He insists Mayor Tyson execute him for the murder of old Skipps, the rag-and-bone man, but has stormed in on the eve of a family engagement party, pairing Alizon Eliot to Tyson's nephew Humphrey. Alizon is also desired by Humphrey's brother Nicholas, who wants everything Humphrey has, and Tyson's clerk Richard, who is smitten with Alizon.
The death of old Skipps is debated by the villagers who believe he was turned into a dog by beautiful Jennet Jourdemayne, whose little maid heard her peacock scream and mistook it for the devil. Satan's latest button-hole, breathes the lecherous Nicholas, as Jennet bursts in begging for protection and finds herself bound for execution, leaving her considerable fortune to the oligarchy, of course. The Chaplain, an ethereal soul whose angel mistress is his viol, persuades Tyson to invite Mendip to the engagement party and Justice Tappercoom agrees, thinking to save the town the expense of an execution if Mendip lightens up. Mendip won't go without Jennet. "Sin is so inconvenient", pouts Margaret, Tyson's sister. Act III contains some of the most beautiful love verse drama in the English language; for example, Mendip's "the wind is obsessed by tomorrow".
J. D. Cullen makes an excellent Mendip and is supported by a visually impeccable cast though their accents and verse styles achieve varying degrees of success. Camillia Sanes brings the practicality the character requires to her beautiful, witchy Jennet. Veteran cast members Terry Diab as the matron Margaret, Kevin Carr as Mayor Tyson and Peter Lucas as The Chaplain are the most consistent. Nathan G. Johnson as Humphrey is a tall exclamation point who uses an accent which unfortunately renders his speech almost unintelligible. John E. Tracy plays Nicholas, who has some of the play's most beautiful poetry. Tracy doesn't make the most of it but delivers an arresting portrayal in a costume and body language reminiscent of Marcel Marceau. Jeff Marlowe speaks beautifully and creates a worm who turns in Richard the clerk (the role created by Richard Burton). The convent-bred Alizon is a particularly difficult role and Amy Chaffee falls into the trap of caricaturing her as one of the Olsen twins. Her Alizon does mature in Act II, and not a moment too soon for me. Patrick Lander and Martin Horsey hold their own in the vivid supporting roles of Tappercoom and Skipps.
Marowitz, who also directed with a welcome sensitivity to the play's values, humor and beauty, costumes Mendip in an Army greatcoat and the rest of the cast in various periods and styles, a concept which adds to its universal appeal.
It's a pleasure to have Lady back in town, simmering if not burning. As Tappercoom says, "You will spend the evening joyously, sociably, taking part in the pleasures of your fellow men"