by Anthony Clarvoe
directed by John Dillon
at the Loeb Mainstage
At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, Susan Sontag's AIDS and Its Metaphors pointed out the dangers of comparing AIDS to a plague. Now, eight years later, Anthony Clarvoe resurrects the analogy and examines The Great Plague in 17th century London. The play's aim, as the narrator explains, is to be of use "if this should ever happen again." From this smug sentiment, the work literally regresses until everyone is sick or dead. This undercuts the play's snappy direction, talented cast and high-profile venue. Hardly prescriptive or inspirational, The Living is monumentally existential.
Not every Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club performance hires a visiting director and is given the Loeb Mainstage. Did this play need to be performed on a stage as large as the Mainstage? No. Was it given the Mainstage because of a visiting director? Yes. John Dillon, who has directed plays in Tokyo, Russia and London, makes this student production crisp and impersonal.
He assiduously shows how conversation during the plague years was held at a distance for fear of infection. Everyone on-stage is isolated in space. Most of the cast mills about the empty stage like nomads, their tired despair growing into apathy and hatred. Surrounded by a vacuum of open space, they look small and, conversely, their plights seem small. A few actors, most noteably Jessica Fortunato and Brad Rouse, manage to fill the ample Mainstage.
The play is set in 1665. The King has deserted plague stricken London, leaving Sir John Lawrence (Colin Stokes), Lord Mayor of London, to procure doctors and sign certificates granting leave from the city. Dr. Edward Harmon's (Michael Stone) forces him to stay in the city despite the increasing danger. John Graunt (Brad Rouse) examines the Bills of Mortality and compiles statistics which he believes will help combat the plague. Rouse is incredibly sincere; he makes his troubles immediate. As the play's narrator, Rouse's performance is enthusiastic and solicitous of the audience's sympathy--it gives the show a "Masterpiece Theatre" quality. As a doctor who can scarcely help his patients, Stone's Harmon resigns himself to a glassy stoicism which gives him a stagnant quality.
At the center of the catastrophe is Sarah Chandler (Francesca Delbanco), a kind of anti-heroine. After her children are quarantined, she flees London, only to be chased back because other towns fear the possibility of infection from a Londoner. When she returns to the empty frame of a house that once contained her family, her response is emotionless. Her frequently vacant stare makes Chandler strangely cold, an awkward position for a central female character.
Jessica Fortunato's portrayal of Elizabeth Finch, an examiner of the dead, supplies the play's highest moments. Her throaty voice fills the entire theater effortlessly as she marches in like a Norma Desmond and seizes the scene. In the play's brassiest moment, she lies dying, strapped to a bed, awaiting a last ditch operation. Dr. Harmon dons his bird-like leather mask while Sarah, now a nursemaid, polishes an enormous knife. In a fit of pain, Elizabeth convulses and screams. As her bed descends beneath the stage, a beam of light illuminates her body and loud religious music plays. The scene is flashy and gratuitous, but its combination of technical and acting bravado make it the play's most expressive.
Representing the conflicting factions of state and church are Sir John, the Lord's Mayor of London, and Rev. Thomas Vincent. Sir John is purportedly one who profits from others' misfortunes and yet his character is too loosely constructed to deal with this paradox. He never articulates his motivations. In the many scenes devoted to bureaucratic rigors, the squabbling drones on.
Rev. Thomas Vincent (Justin Levitt) invokes the power of God to soothe his troubled parishoners. As he begs for God's mercy, he becomes irate, realizes the pathetic and hopeless predicament of his state. He yells his sermons to little effect, except to grate on the audience's nerves.
A refreshing breath of foppery comes from Lord Brounker (Mike Efron). An envoy to the King, he brings both good and bad news to Sir John. Fabulously beribboned in pink, Brounker is a starlet who wags his opulence in the face of the sick and the desperate. Literally a pink triangle, his effeminate manner and costuming furnish a witty reminder of the politics of our own age. Efron brings just the right delicate edge to make his performance stand out.
The cast, a virtual ensemble of HRDC members, is capable of greater productions than this. Ill-fated by the script at its outset, The Living plunders a previous era for answers and comes up empty-handed except for a contrived ending metaphor. As Graunt puts in in his closing speech, "What Newton found [on vacation during the plague]: the world would fly to pieces, but for a great force, a power in every single body in the world, which pulls it ceaselessly toward every other body." Unfortunately, not even Newtonian physics can hold the play together.