Anyone familiar with the work of playwright and director Mark Jackson can attest that he’s an unparalleled talent in the Bay Area theater scene, and possibly in the nation at large. His rendition of Goethe’s Faust was one of the best local plays of 2009, and he followed it with equally imaginative interpretations of Mary Stuart and Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. For his current collaboration with Berkeley company Shotgun Players, Jackson set his sights on the first play ever performed in America, a colonial satire called Ye Barre & Ye Cubbe. Jackson not only resurrected the play, but also decided to dramatize the circumstances of its writing by disgruntled settlers in a small village a day’s journey from Jamestown. Rather than merely reconstruct the history of a work of art, Jackson managed to present it as an extension of the Puritans’ sensibility — which, in his mind, was inherently creative and theatrical.
If the playwright’s intent was to breathe new life into a society that we tend to dismiss as “primitive” or “Philistine,” then God’s Plot is a rousing success. It opens with a winkingly humorous scene in which the town ingénue, Tryal Pore (Juliana Lustenader), is practicing a confession to be delivered at Sunday service. To render it properly, she has to learn how to project her voice, intone language with the right degree of poetic fervor (e.g., “God had ripped my inner voice out from the echo chamber of my breast and exposed it to every ear.”), and turn her whole body into a heightened register of expression. She also has to learn how to cry big crocodile tears on command, even though Pore insists that’s a cliché ending. Still, she’ll do it at the behest of her tutor, the town playwright William Darby (Carl Holvick-Thomas). The two of them have an ongoing flirtation that could easily boil into a hot, dramatic love affair. It’s clear from the start that no amount of Puritan repression can stifle the passions of these souls.
That’s exactly Jackson’s point. God’s Plot, which takes place in a set that looks like a church (frosted windows, wood paneling in the shape of a cross, chandeliers meant to look like candles, all courtesy of Nina Ball), is by far the playwright’s campiest work in three years. The dialogue mixes archaic and modern language to great comic effect; the characters alternate from extreme lasciviousness to abject penitence, with seemingly no middle ground. Jackson has shown in the past that he enjoys poking fun at repressive, moralistic societies — his Metamorphosis was set in Cold War America, while Mary Stuart used 16th-century England as an entry point to talk about national security. But never has Jackson taken on a societal regime with such utter enthusiasm and verve.
God’s Plot is also a musical. Two musicians — upright bassist Travis Kindred and banjo player Josh Pollock — sit on stage the entire time, providing a soundtrack of mostly upbeat dance numbers, along with a few sinister, atmospheric pieces. The ensemble members romp through vast swaths of historical exposition in a few song-and-dance numbers — most notably, the one at the beginning explaining how Darby snuck over to Virginia as an indentured servant bound for Barbados. Lustendader, who is as convincing a singer as she is an actress, handles much of the score by herself. Consummate British actor John Mercer, playing spiteful Quaker Edward Martin, gets his own theme song. The music, all composed by Daveen DiGiacomo, is gorgeous by itself, and more importantly creates a fitting emotional landscape for the characters to inhabit.
Jackson’s main point, of course, is that theater abounds in real life, even in a society that suppresses all forms of artistic expression. The Puritans who inhabit God’s Plot all seem hyper-exaggerated in their own ways, from the foppish patriarch, Edmond Pore (Kevin Clarke), and his smugly complacent wife, Constance (Fontana Butterfield), to the mischievous tobacco farmer who first sheds light on an unfair tax policy (Anthony Nemirovsky) and the upstanding carpenter Daniel Prichard (Joe Salazar). There’s also the handsome tavern owner, Thomas Fowkes (Daniel Bruno); the insouciant Phillip Howard (Will Hand); and the town sheriff, John Fawsett (Dave Maier). All of them are fantastically overwrought, and at the same time full of childish spite. They’ve set up their whole society as a stage, with the idea that God is always watching — and so are the neighbors, as Jackson indicates in his program notes. It involves many layers of role playing, he argues.
That’s a fairly complex idea that comes into sharp relief in God’s Plot. Well crafted, comprehensible, and wildly entertaining, it’s a fabulous addition to Jackson’s oeuvre, and a terrific culmination for Shotgun Players’ 2011 season. The company tends to end each year with an ambitious production that has something to say about the craft of theater. God’s Plot fits the mold perfectly.