Staged Hereafter – Berkeley’s newest theater company to complete a full season of plays – is closing out its first year at South Berkeley Community Church with a very strong grassroots production of English playwright Christopher Fry’s dark, fascinating 1948 philosophical comedy “The Lady’s Not for Burning.”
Although “The Lady’s Not for Burning” is set in a small English town in the 15th century, the play was obviously written in the shadow of World War II. It tells a vicious satirical story about comfortable middle class people living in a world of easy moral compromise – and how this compromise brings violence and absurdity into the lives of others.
“The Lady’s Not for Burning” combines three story strands. On the eve of a wedding, two testosterone-crazed brothers of privilege (Brooks Ralston and Matthew Travisano) physically battle for the affection of a woman (Alizon Eliot) that one of them is about to marry.
Into this odd, pre-nuptial conflict wanders an enigmatic stranger (‘vid [sic] Buttaro), who demands to be hanged for committing two murders. Soon after, panicked rumors on the street generate the arrest and imprisonment of an intelligent and independent local townswoman (Jennifer Le Blanc) on charges that she is a witch.
The play’s first act is largely a comedy of the absurd as this odd mix of people, along with relatives and city officials, sort through an almost slapstick round-robin of conflict and misunderstanding. The play turns dark, however, when town officials opt for torture as a means of finding out exactly what happened.
Fry’s play is an unusual hybrid. Written in very poetical language, it is a mix of absurd comedy and more serious existential philosophical debate on justice and morality. Additional themes are love, and the power of female perspective to transform decayed and bitter male social and political systems.
For me, there is also a judgmental, puritanical strain by the author that runs through the play, which is tricky to address in a staging, since the play itself is an indictment of puritanical morality.
But director Susannah Woods and her Staged Hereafter cast have put together a very good production of the show. At one end of the scale, it has almost a Marx Brothers feel to it. The feuding brothers rolling around on the ground wrestling say a lot about the basic problem-solving skills of human beings.
At the other end of the style scale, mysterious stranger Thomas and accused witch Jennet engage in lengthy, fascinating philosophical debate on the dark capacities of human behavior, and the ultimate meaning of life.
Thomas intriguingly wanders the stage, part chorus and part narrator, walking among the other characters and making commentary, often going largely unnoticed by them.
In a wonderful, hilariously emotionally near-sighted performance, Mary Ann Rodgers stands out as the imperious but dizzy and controlling mother of the two feuding brothers. Tom Juarez is a fussy Mayor Tyson. Malcolm Rodgers is his evil political associate, the affable torturing judge.
Gregg Le Blanc is a humorously oblivious and ineffectual chaplain, blind to everything going on around him. In a small but very effective role, a housemaid (Iliza Abbe) hurries across the stage from time to time, busying herself with tidying, and providing striking moments of contrast and perspective to the obsessive and often blind actions of her “betters.”
Director Woods has done some really first rate period costume design – from brother Humphrey’s tangerine bloomers, to the best selection of stage hats I’ve seen in a long time.
Sightline problems are the production’s one minus. In the South Berkeley Community Church performance space, two wooden columns right at the front of the stage can block some of the audience’s view.
But basically this is a very good grassroots staging. Because it is such an unorthodox hybrid of styles, “The Lady’s not for Burning” is an easy play to mess up in production. To the contrary in this Berkeley presentation, however, Staged Hereafter has mounted a delightful evening in the theater. This is definitely a play for thinking people. If that appeals to you, don’t miss this show. It runs one more week.
The Lady’s Not for Burning,” presented by Staged Hereafter at South Berkeley Community Church, 1902 Fairview St., Berkeley, Thursday through Saturday through August 4. Call (510) 464-1117 or visit www.stagedhereafter.org.
Daily Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for “American Theater,” “Backstage West,” “Callboard” and other publications. E-mail him at email@example.com.