Review of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire at New York Theatre Workshop

  • Our critic's rating:
    May 12, 2018
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    As much as a third of the audience left at the interval of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire at New York Theatre Workshop. That may be significant. That such leave-taking put them out the door into a driving rainstorm and a dearth of cabs on E. 4th St. suggests it was meaningful. I know I wanted to flee.

    It is difficult to fault the actors, or the set and staging, or the direction. The costumes were terrific, and the sound and lighting designers did their jobs. So I guess we are down to the script.

    This Caryl Churchill play, first produced in 1976, uses significant moments of the English Civil War, when a disenfranchised rabble took up arms against King Charles I, to raise questions of representation and powerlessness. She adds a second revolutionary overlay in the imminent second coming of Christ to suggest a sham solution to all the pointless suffering and injustice following the fruitless uprising.

    One could argue that long, repetitive speeches about God and redemption and property and capitalism are worthy subjects for the stage. Still, I’d argue there has to be some animation, some promise of change, some compelling reason to “stay tuned” if they are to be enjoyed as theater. Clearly Churchill intends that the audience experience the tedium.

    If she intended to make us weary of the argument by offering no way out, she got it done. It wasn’t pleasant, or moving, or enlightening.

    Director Rachel Chavkin played cleverly with time tricks. In a mind-numbing debate of the issues, she has one character covertly check a cell phone. In another, the company arrives on stage with IPA six packs. Still later, she has Mikeah Ernest Jennings' character dance back on stage in 1640s costume-- but with 2018 moves. The play may be set in 17th century Buckinghamshire but the brutal disregard for the poor and the restless domination of entrenched power is universal and timeless. 

    The six actors could not be a more motley crew, disparate in age and gender, race and physical ability. In the first scene, they inhabit the dimly lit stage, each holding a lantern, suggesting each may represent a slice of humanity. There are no couples, no obvious family groups. They all play multiple roles.

    Matthew Jeffers, who suffers from a rare form of dwarfism, does the first speech in the character of a child. As the story progresses, however, his physicality is not part of the tale, except perhaps, in the sense that we are entertaining big ideas, demanding a sense of universality. Later his is raucous and funny and sometimes prissy, as he rockets thru characters.

    Mikeah Ernest Jennings brings a big range to the stage. There are flashes of oratorical punch in his preacher and intuitive warmth and connection as he wraps himself around other characters. He is that rare thing — a spontaneous actor. There is a big career ahead.

    Churchill’s martyrs, at least the female martyrs, are all Evelyn Spahr's. She’s the beggar to be whipped, the unclean woman of patriarchy, the woman who killed her baby. She is Woman without the feminist bits. That said, some of Spahr’s best moments are playing a man arguing that those who fought deserve something, some change. She’s quite commanding.

    Rob Campbell plays some of the script’s privileged white males. He is imperious and unfeeling — even Trumpian in his obliviousness. Churchill wrote him with deft observation and Campbell plays it full bore.

    Gregg Mozgala plays various versions of a soldier in the army of lost causes. As he'a soldier, his compromised walk is easily written off to injury. In fact, Mozgala suffers with cerebral palsy. His characters move from the young guy who joins up on a lark, to the disillusioned malcontent he becomes. He steps up in each iteration.

    Vinie Burrows gets all the laugh lines. Tiny and black, and older than you’d think, she embodies a current sexuality and a mythic gynic sensibility. This actor brings lots of power to her version of woman; she is both sexual and nurturing. You can’t wait to see what she’s going to do next.

    I’d go see any of these actors in their next plays. But, this play? At best it is a port in a storm.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    What the popular press says...

    "Theater is a collaboration but not usually a commune. That may help explain why Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire — which she wrote, in 1976, after a three-week workshop with actors helping to develop the characters and scenes — is the first of her plays I’ve found indulgent and leaden. However wonderful it may be to perform, it’s a hard slog to sit through."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "Attending New York Theatre Workshop’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining in Buckinghamshire is like going to the restaurant of a three-star Michelin chef and being served four courses of porridge. No matter how nourishing the meal may be—how careful the boiling, how locally sourced the oats—it’s disappointing."
    Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

    External links to full reviews from popular press...

    New York Times - Time Out