“Scenes from Court Life”
Yale Repertory Theatre
Sarah Ruhl’s “Scenes from Court Life (or the whipping boy and his prince)” is both a timely and time bending new play that is receiving its world premiere production at Yale Repertory Theatre. And though the show is slightly overlong, the playwright has a good deal of fun presenting both life amongst the royalty in 17th Century England and life during the years when the Bush family was in power in America. Director Mark Wing-Davey has done a fine job of jumping back and forth in time and it is always apparent onstage which era the audience is watching at any given moment. What’s more, the cast of “Scenes from Court Life” is certainly game and richly talented and are able to switch time periods within a single line. Sarah Ruhl has created quite a playful and unorthodox new work and, though it needs some editing, “Scenes from Court Life” may very well have a future life beyond Yale Repertory Theatre.
The plot, such as it is, partly focuses on the Bush dynasty, and the opening scene shows George H. W. Bush, Barbara Bush, George W. Bush, and Jeb Bush playing a game of tennis. In this sense, the title of the play refers to the tennis court, but there is an entirely separate story explored in the actual court life of royalty. Sarah Ruhl is drawing parallels between the Bushes and royalty in 17th Century England and, though it doesn’t always work, the playwright certainly has a good time making observations about both time periods. In addition, most of the actors play more than one character and they all seem to be having a great deal of fun onstage.
T. Ryder Smith is just right as both George H. W. Bush (whom he resembles quite a bit) and Charles I. Matching him is Mary Schultz as Barbara Bush, with Angel Desai excelling as a crisp Laura Bush. Not to be outdone, Greg Keller is a marvelous George W. Bush and also a fine Charles II. Interestingly, the actor cast as Jeb Bush (the splendid Danny Wolohan) also plays a whipping boy in the 17th Century part of the show. It should be mentioned that scenic and costume designer Marina Draghici does a perfect job of supplying the cast with outfits that suit both eras, as well as being able to delineate clearly onstage which time period is being presented. This all sounds quite complicated, but director Mark Wing-Davey makes everything work and keeps “Scenes from Court Life” merrily spinning from beginning to end.
The playwright delights in her exploration of the Bush dynasty, poking fun at such moments when both George W. Bush and Jeb Bush were running for office in two different states, and she manages to embrace everything associated with the Bush family, from 9/11 to Jeb Bush’s failed attempt to run for president (and, yes, there is a Donald Trump character in the show). Similarly, the 17th Century royalty is equally presented in “Scenes from Court Life” and Sarah Ruhl makes that part of her play just as interesting. Not to give too much away, the playwright introduces such characters as the aforementioned whipping boy and even someone who is designated “groom of the stool” (whose duties are not to be revealed here).
“Scenes from Court Life,” overall, seems to be stronger in the first act, which runs about an hour, as opposed to the second act, which seems to trail on too long, almost as if Sarah Ruhl wasn’t quite sure how to end her play. Her fanciful world view (actually two worlds) is quite a lark, though, and her play is enjoyable even at the moments when the playwright is attempting to take on too much. It should be mentioned that all the actors are good in “Scenes from Court Life,” with an especially strong Keren Lugo playing both Catherine of Braganza and Columba Bush, and Jeff Biel and Andrew Weems do well portraying a multitude of roles.
Just based on the Yale Repertory Theatre production, “Scenes from Court Life” may need some pruning, but enough of the show is playful and intriguing enough to warrant a second look (and, hopefully, future stagings). Sarah Ruhl has done a fine job exploring two parallel universes and director Mark Wing Davey proves to be the ideal ally in giving “Scenes from Court Life” a topnotch staging. Add in a grand company of actors, and this show is definitely worth attending for a truly time-bending evening of theatre.
“Scenes from Court Life” continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT through October 22, 2016. For tickets, please visit www.yalerep.org or call the box office at 203-432-1234.
Photo (L-R): T. Ryder Smith, Mary Shultz, Danny Wolohan and Greg Keller
Photo by Carol Rosegg