I'M NOT VERY USED to things happening rapidly," chirps convent-bred Alizon Eliot in Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning. The current Dunster House production of the existential comedy-drama should give her little reason to fret. In three acts spanning almost as many hours, the cast of this show prattles prosaically but interminably about whether it is more significant to hang, burn or continue with the business of living in the dreary Middle Ages. By the end of it all, the resolution of these and other conflicts in the plot seems less important than the necessity to stretch one's legs.
There are paradoxes aplenty in Fry's beautiful script. His characters ask all the right burning questions: whether it is better to accept the frailty of human nature or commit oneself to abolishing original sin through death. Whether love and passionate commitment to ideals can evoke significant change in the ways of man and the universe. All these are woven into a complex sequence of events, including an imminent wedding, a witch-hunt, and the arrival of a self-proclaimed criminal. The confusion created by these events is hardly as noteworthy as the questions thereby inspired. Without the spark of life necessary to good drama, the issues are cast into the realm of the abstract, relegated to the shelf like books we will never find the time to read for their own sake. Such is the case with the Dunster House production.
There are, of course, bright spots. Enter Tom Prewitt, making like Andy Hardy in pursuit of any young creature in a chastity belt. As Nicholas, one of two ne'er-do-well brothers intent on complicating the plot, Prewitt cuts through the lethargy of the first scenes with an energetic and mischievious performance. Michael Bierer as the blustering, bureaucratic mayor Hebble Tyson leans toward exaggeration in comparison with other characters, but his haughty huffing and sorrowful snorting lend a badly needed comic touch to scenes which would otherwise fall flat.
Veronica Lewis's accused witch Jennet Jourdemayne appropriately sparkles like a jewel, lighting up her surroundings with painted cheeks and wild eyes, desparate, martyred gesticulations, and bright brocaded cape and gown. Her entrance in the first act rescues it from tedium, and in subsequent scenes Lewis outclasses the other players in dramatic ability and depth of character. Only in the last act does she fail to hold her own, lapsing into moon-eyed fatuousness at Jeffrey Harper's words of love.
THESE WORDS ring hollow. As Thomas Mendip, the disenchanted soldier of fortune, Harper's ability to simultaneously remember his lines and deliver them with conviction is limited indeed. When he is inspired, the impact of his existential query is startling, but more often than not he appears to concentrate exclusively on maintaining his accent. While much of the plot revolves around him, he never suitably explains or justifies his involvement in the whole business--or his determination to be hanged. Harper's characterization is too indifferent to convince observers that he cares about his fate or that of anyone else. He registers all emotion by waving his arms and pacing around the stage, though it seems strange that the most sullen character in the play is also the most animated.
Then again, the living characters seem hardly worthy of the honor. Louisa Hufstader's medieval matron is suitably doughty and prim, and Dan Jacobs as the chaplain manages to draw some laughs via his doddering devotion to his viol. But Win Hoover, in a pivotal role as the elder of the conniving brothers, is too easygoing to contemplate chicanery. His gestures toward the women he supposedly desires are unbelievably half-hearted. Marie Richards as the timid Alizon does little to stir passion in any of her suitors, and with the other supporting players is humorlessly one-dimensional.
Pillinger staged this production as a "labor of love," but apparently his fixation upon the sound of the script blinded him to its potential for a spirited treatment. Fry's prose, though too densely written to be believable, is loaded with clever puns which are here denied the emphasis needed to make them funny. The director's love of the play also led him to slight other important elements such as consistent character development, blocking and technical competence. The set, for instance, suggests that the company started out with some good ideas but didn't have the time or ability to give them proper treatment.
For all the life and insight this production imparts to The Lady's Not for Burning, an open reading of the work one winter's night in the JCR may have better satisfied Pillinger's desire to bring it off the shelf.