Arts & Events

EYE FROM THE AISLE: Theater Review: GOD’S PLOT at Shotgun Players

By John A. McMullen II
Tuesday December 13, 2011 - 09:39:00 AM
Will Hand, Juliana Lustenader, Josh Pollock (Banjo), Anthony Nemirovsky.
Pak Han
Will Hand, Juliana Lustenader, Josh Pollock (Banjo), Anthony Nemirovsky.

Mark Jackson’s latest oeuvre, GOD’S PLOT at Shotgun Players, is like boiled filet mignon. There is much good meat there, but the failure is in its preparation and lack of flavor. It is overdone a half hour past its curtain time.  

Our story is based on the true event of the playing of William Darby’s “Ye Bare & Ye Cubb,” the script of which has been lost. It occurs in a Puritan enclave in Virginia in 1665 on that little peninsula that is an extension of Delaware rather than Virginia proper, whose county name, Accomac, fittingly means “on the other side.” It was eye-opening to learn that there was Puritanism in Virginia; most think of 17th C. Virginia society as followers of Merry Monarch Charles II and the Established Church rather than of the theatre-closing Oliver Cromwell. 

Jackson, whose métier is historical drama, incorporates the themes of stacked-deck economics and religious conformity which were at the heart of our Revolution. The parallels with contemporary society are enlightening, too. Tobacco farmers are losing their homes because they have signed the boilerplate without reading it closely. The King’s Edict limited farmers to selling tobacco only to London merchants at their price and at a loss to the farmers; such colonialist exploitations provided the powder and spark in the next century for The Shot Heard Round the World. Pre-Revolution, this was a Christian Country with constraints and punishments not unlike the most extreme of Sharia law. Public confession is expected from all and meant to satisfy the congregation more than purify the individual soul. Quakerism is outlawed, and repression of other religions inspires zealotry which results in terroristic reprisals. 

Plays are once more permitted, having been outlawed for a decade. But criticism of the king is still forbidden since he rules by Divine Right. So when a satire is performed one Sunday afternoon in the all-purpose tavern/meeting hall, which allegorically attacks the Crown’s tobacco policy, the question is whether to prosecute on the basis of violating the Sabbath or Sedition.  

At the heart of GOD’S PLOT is our blonde hero and heroine. In the family barn, he instructs her on how to deliver her confession convincingly—acting lessons for her church performance. Our hero Carl Holvick-Thomas discloses he was a vagabond actor in England. Our heroine Tryal, played by Juliana Lustenader, the daughter of the community leader and judge, has a rebellious spirit and expresses lustful objectives toward her handsome tutor; Ms. Lustenader is eye-poppingly pretty with long flaxen hair, and she portrays well Tryal’s steel-trap mind in a scene wherein she calmly and rationally exposes her parent’s hypocrisy around the dinner table. It sets her mother to paroxysms in a comic turn skillfully done by Fontana Butterfield. 

While other critics have raved, this eye from the aisle demurs from the general opinion of the finale of Shotgun’s 20th season. Jackson does not serve up the promised feast, and the play does not touch our hearts. The energy goes toward an intellectual pursuit of telling the story of this little-known act of rebellion. We are starved to actually care about these folks. By and large, the acting is cerebral and unemotional which seems due to a lack of anything to sink their teeth into. It could/should be as emotionally compelling as The Crucible, but Jackson chooses a light-hearted turn that only succeeds in his masterful choreography of fine comedic dumb show which provides the main creative moments of relief and joy in this dramatic Slough of Despond. There is little real danger throughout, the stakes are not very high, our couple has only a small bump in their road to true love, dramatic conflict takes a back-seat to putting forth the argument, so it’s hard to get our juices flowing about it all. 

The modernization of the language and diction of the play, rather than bringing it closer, makes it difficult to escape the impression of an ensemble of 21 C. California actors pretending to be 17 C. Virginia folk. There are no dialects which might have given it place, time, and character. The very lengthy monologues and wordy dialogue do not have the poetry which one would expect to be in the mouths of the people of that time. We know from their writings that their mode of expression was not the dross of today. It is only the speech of John Mercer, a native Briton who plays different roles with differing dialects, that demonstrates the wealth of lilt and vowel changes that might have helped to transform this play. Instead we settle for an often inflection-less American blurt. Too often, some actors seemed to be hollering to project with tinny overtones which makes for a teeth-clenching experience. 

The play works best in silence: Jackson is very adept at imaginative theatre, and via a small platform on wheels and a stick and a change of lighting, we are transported down a river on a pole boat toward a clandestine meeting or a property dispute with the play’s curmudgeonly antagonist. 

Nina Ball’s set, as stark and woody as any Separatist church, with a few bare tables and chair, transports us to that world even in preset. There are two bales of hay for the temptation of a roll therein and the punishable sin of fornication. The set fits the premises perfectly: Ashby Stage is a former church with pews for seating and undisguised wooden supporting arches and beams.  

And it has music. But the music in the first act is a cross between comic Klezmer and blues played by a couple of astute musicians on the bass and banjo. Our blonde ingénue sings it all. Problem is, if you cast one person to sing all your songs, that actor should be an accomplished singer, which, for all her vivacity and spunk, our heroine is not. In the second act, the music becomes pure parody. It is jaw-droppingly reminiscent of a grand old comic movie with Lee Marvin and Jane Fonda called “Cat Ballou” wherein Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye strum banjos and periodically make musical commentary on the action (if you don’t remember, click on Instead of the wealth of old English and Irish music in the genre of that time with its plaintive melodies and jigs, it puzzling why the composer Daveen DiGiacomo, who wrote such compelling music for “God’s Ear,” chose these incongruous and idiosyncratic musical modes. It was not immediately clear from the program who wrote the lyrics which neither move the plot forward nor are witty commentary, and the melody through the second act is repetitive and unvarying.  

Only in the last 5 minutes of the action are we drawn into the drama via a surprisingly chilling dramatic turn by Joe Salazar as a jilted suitor. Jackson has written a natural and ironic ending —at which he regrettably does not stop, but continues to recount the history of America with a patriotic ending and another musical number which devolves into a Broadway bravura ending. 

There is sometimes a problem in theatre when the playwright directs. Theatre is reputedly a collaborative effort as opposed to cinema which is often an auteur creation. We know Jackson capable of crafting incredible theatre work like the 2004 Shotgun production of “The Death of Meyerhold” of which he was both playwright and director. Often a second set of eyes, the mode of conflict and editing, and an additional creative sensibility may have turned this intriguing setting and premise into the kind of fascinating work that is expected from his talent.  



written and directed by Mark Jackson 

Shotgun Players at Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby opposite Ashby BART  

through January 15 / (510) 841-6500 x 303 

WITH: Dan Bruno, Fontana Butterfield, Kevin Clarke, Will Hand, Carl Holvick Thomas, Juliana Lustenader, Dave Maier*, John Mercer, Anthony Nemirovsky*, and Joe Salazar (*member of Actors' Equity Association) 

Musicians; Josh Pollock (banjo), Travis Kindred (bass) 

Composer Daveen DiGiacomo, Set Designer Nina Ball, Light Designer Heather Basarab, Costume Designer Christine Crook, Sound Designer Matt Stines, Stage Manager Amanda Krieger, 

Asst Director/Asst Musical Director Beth Wilmurt. 

John A. McMullen II is a member of San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, American Theatre Critics Association, and Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. Editing by E J Dunne.