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Scenes From Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince

Oh who shall be whipped for the country's sins? — Jeb
Another country!— All

Jeff Biehl, Greg Keller (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
And so the king sits on his throne. No, not that throne; the other one. Well, both really, at different times.

In the world premiere of Scenes From Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince at Yale Rep, Sarah Ruhl has written a funny, perceptive, scathing scatological screed that juxtaposes two dynasties — the Bushes of Connecticut, Maine and Texas with the Stuarts of England, Scotland and Ireland. Ruhl's sympathies are obviously not with either tribe. Although separated by 350 years, both families are careless, calculating and contemptible.

It might have been subtler to write a contemporary comedy about George H. W. and George W., presidents 41 and 43, with their accommodating attendant Barbara and man-child second son, Jeb, the "whipping boy" to the princely George W. Or a history play about the Stuarts that more than hints at a contemporary parallel, with an historically accurate whipping boy, Jeb's 17th century counterpart, Barnaby, who's whipped whenever Prince Charles does something naughty. (Heaven forfend that the royal behind, though deserving, be beaten.)

Ruhl (author of the well regarded In the Next Room, Stage Kiss and Dear Elizabeth) doesn't settle. Placing the Bushes in historical context by comparing their machinations with those of Charles I and his son, Charles II, allows for political results that are both frightening and hysterical.

True, such a scheme can descend into heavy-handedness, and does on occasion. And the evening seems over-long. Ruhl lays it on pretty thick, as in an extraneous scene where, in childhood, George and Jeb fight over toys.

There's a lot going on here: Catholicism vs. Protestantism, love vs. justice, upper-class privilege vs. lower-class integrity. Ruhl, although privy to a rich trove of historical conflict, sets her pen to doling out Bush revelations. At one point, she has George W. repeat some of his foolish one-liners ("I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family"; "I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully"; "It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it," etc.)

Charles I, if you remember, lost his head, literally, paving the way for the disastrous Interregnum under the rule of Oliver Cromwell. Eleven years later, the monarchy was restored as Charles II became king. Although 41 does not face a similar fate as Charles I, he does wind up in a wheelchair.

Ruhl writes of Charles in rhyme, using the elevated language of the period. For the Bushes, the dialogue is modern and filled with vulgarities. Since both families are played by the same actors, British accents are required for the royals, American ones for the Washington crowd. Ruhl also cleverly juxtaposes tennis games, the one-upmanship contest the Bushes play vs. the more refined use in the Restoration reign of Charles II, when tennis courts were converted into theaters.

Director Mark Wing-Davey sorts out the permutations with skill and a welcome light touch. Michael Raine's choreography wittily bridges the era gap, while Marina Draghici's sets and costumes, Stephen Strawbridge's lighting and Shane Rettig's sound design cunningly contrast the play's two eras.

In an excellent cast, T. Ryder Smith stands out as George H. W. and Charles I. Imperious but kind, a patrician not above grimy politics, his characters are complex and Smith fuses similarities and contradictions with the slightest gestures. Danny Wolohan is an awkward yet sympathetic Jeb, while Greg Keller is appropriately petulant, dumb and demanding as George W. and Charles II.

As Laura Bush, Angel Desai is enigmatic, handling her big speech at the end of Act I with breakout sincerity. Her line,"Women bleed in private like animals; men bleed in public like kings," sums up a play in which, among other themes, women stand by their men, putting up with their thirst for power.

But Ruhl's true subject is how society and the individual interact, influencing one another. In"Scenes From Court Life," she deals with the exigencies, the cruelties, the sacrifices, the rivalries that are both inevitable and poisonous.

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Scenes From Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince
by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Mark Wing-Davey
CAST: Greg Keller (Charles II, George W. Bush), T. Ryder Smith (Charles I, George H. W. Bush), Danny Wolohan (A Whipping Boy, Jeb Bush), Angel Desai (Harpsichord Player, Laura Bush), Mary Shultz (Barbara Bush), Andrew Weems (Tutor, Inigo Jones, Bonnie Flood), Jeff Biehl (Groom of the Stool, Executioner, Karl Rove), Keren Lugo (Catherine of Braganza, Columba Bush), John R. Colley, Evelyn Giovine, Hudson Oznowicz, Arturo Soria (Ensemble)
Choreographer: Michael Raine
Music Director: Angel Desai
Scene and Costume Designer: Marina Draghici
Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge
Sound Designer: Shane Rettig
Projection Designer: Yana Birÿkova
Technical Director: Kelly Rae Fayton
Dialect / Vocal Coaches: Jane Guyer Fujita, Beth McGuire
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet
Wig Designer: Charles G. LaPointe
Baroque Expert and Choreographer: Meggi Sweeney Smith
Production Dramaturg: Kari Olmon
Casting Director Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel
Stage Manager: James Mountcastle
Running Time: Act I – 55 minutes; Act II – 65 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission
Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, Conn., Sept. 30 – Oct. 22, 2016
Reviewed Oct. 14, 2016

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