A bird in the hand

The Book of Wren

By Bronwen Denton-Davis
Miranda Theatre Company
529 W. 30th St. (268-9829)
Equity showcase (closes Jan. 31)
Directed by Valentina Fratti
Review by Julie Halpern

The Miranda Theatre Company, now in its 10th season, specializes in presenting new plays devoted to human-rights issues and the search for inspiration in even the most frightening circumstances. Their current production takes place in the medieval Welsh village of Wren, shortly after the Crusades: a time the playwright describes as "old and treacherous."

When summoned to the priory, Madlin admits freely to the practice of the goddess religion, and her refusal to convert to Christianity despite cruel torture spotlights the conflict between the ancient matriarchal religions and the now-dominant patriarchal Christianity.

Director Valentina Fratti's directorial style is collaborative and actor-oriented. She maintained a high energy level throughout the evening, never losing the audience's interest.

Tracy Sallows's interpretation of Madlin can only be described as monumental in its nobility: a tragic heroine in the classic mode. Her exquisite and unique vocalism further enhanced her portrayal. She wisely eschewed any eccentric physical or vocal mannerisms, a choice that added further integrity to her performance.

Hilary Howard gave a touching performance as Dorie Lightly, the naive village woman, who has been raped and doesn't know whether the child she is carrying is her husband's. Ben Sheaffer brought empathy and innocent charm to the role of Dorie's well-meaning but ignorant husband Alec.

Robert Ross was intense and compelling as Father Cullen Godwin, a young priest who truly wishes to serve God. His faith is nearly destroyed by Morot's cruelty to Dorie, Alec, and Madlin. His conflicts with his calling and his physical and spiritual attraction to Madlin were beautifully conveyed with an athletic physicality that revealed his inner turmoil.

Jeffrey Hayenga's portrayal of the Abbot's erudite cook, Moss, was a study in restraint and brilliant comic timing. Moss's ability to find a Latin quotation or historical passage to suit any situation is a sad commentary on the lost art of learning, all too common during this period.

Abbot Lucien Morot (Michael Etheridge) has masterminded his rise in the church by catering to the corrupt members of the clergy and continues their tactics upon his own rapid ascension to power. As Morot has no faith or interest in the God he professes to serve, he strives to maintain his position by routing out the "ungodly" among Wren's villagers. His anger becomes focused on the pagan Madlin.

Michael Etheridge's interpretation of Morot's arrogance and evil was magnificent, but it took a huge leap of faith to believe the youthful Etheridge was old enough to be an Abbot, much less someone who had been in power for over ten years. John Malmed (Bale) and Christopher Peterson gave splendid performances as the Abbot's brutal thugs.

Zeke Leonard's ingenious set design consisted mostly of a loosely woven hemp material hung over most of the stage. The material became totally transformed in shape and texture by the evocative use of lighting by Scott Poitras, becoming mossy trees, the interior of a thatched hut, and the Abbot's quarters. The few pieces of furniture and props were moved quickly and effortlessly. Costume designers Rodney Munoz and Nan Young dressed the actors in attractive, historically appropriate costumes, which allowed for ease of movement. Sound designer Eric Shim's use of medieval vocal music helped set the mood for the audience before the curtain even rose.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 1999 Julie Halprin