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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
The Pilgrim Papers
By Elyse Sommer
While Temperley read just enough of Bradford's famous journal Of Plymouth Plantation to cloak his story of the Plymouth Colony's beginnings in facts, this is a fanciful concoction intended as a general sendup of historians who propagate myths rather than fact and specifically the penchant of Bush and Company for subverting the truth to serve their political agenda. God knows, there's plenty to satirize and we need people with a talent for squeezing a few satiric laughs out of the current spinmeistering that has made our world more unsafe than ever. But The Pilgrim Papers though sporadically entertaining does little to negate George F. Kaufman's much quoted "Satire is what closes on Saturday night."
This world-premiere's author is an imaginative and talented writer -- to wit his endearing Souvenir which we reviewed in its three productions, including last year's pre-Broadway one at Berkshire Theatre Festival (the review ). His long-time director Vivian Matalon knows how to bring his words to vivid stage life. A reading of the script after seeing the BTF Unicorn production made it clear that Matalon has brought considerable directorial wit to the material and has guided the young actors (some in multiple roles) to ably portray the characters descending down the rabbit hole and into the re-imagined world of early Bay Colony life.
Temperley is on to a good idea in positing that while the early Pilgrims wanted a Utopian haven with a Communist style economy, Utopians often don't live up to their initially well-intentioned religious and economic beliefs. As The Pilgrim Papers would have it, the staunch religionists who landed on the Mayflower were overly zealous and hypocrites, making for an easy transition into capitalists when it suited them. It's not hard to believe that their tightly controlled little society seeded a more liberal, peace and sexually free faction that included the wife of the leading settler, William Bradford.
Unfortunately, the spoof sags under the weight of too many hot button issues with the overemphasis on the acceptance and legal validation of homosexual love threatening to collapse it like a house of cards. Worse still, the audience is asked to laugh at a lot of familiar stuff to get a hold of some of the genuinely funny bits. Furthermore, director Matalon hasn't solved the play's other imbalance -- the see-sawing between a morality tale we're expected to take seriously and a jokey spoof with lots of now dialogue and easy to catch allusions to current events and politicians.
The best thing about this debut production are the young actors' interpretations of such diverse characters as the dour Bradford (Phil Sletteland), his feisty wife (Arnica Skulstad-Brown), a mad hatter sort of evangelical minister (Brent Michael Eroy), a Rumsfield-esque Miles Standish (Joshua Davis) and a young gay sailor (Justin Stoney). The standout performer is Austin Durant who brings the same imposing stature and voice to this production as he did to the Unicorn's season opener, The Illusion (review). As the narrator he holds everyone and everything together with relaxed wit and charm. His gift for caricature comes into full flower as the cockney-accented, dope smoking, effeminate native called Squanto and the teen-aged girl the diabolical Standish turns into a spy for "Conscience In Action" (C.I.A.).
I won't go into details about the convoluted rivalry between Governor Bradford's power brokers and the hippie faction that includes the doomed heroine (the Governor's wife) and a gay married couple. Needless to say, references to terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction are part of the allusionary mix.
Given the often amusing incidents and the lively cast, The Pilgrim Papers is not a terrible misfire -- but unlike Souvenir, it's far from ready from prime time.