Two Planks and a Passion

Famous Door Theatre Company

at the Theatre Building

By Albert Williams

All you need to make good theater, according to an old maxim, is two planks and a passion–a sturdy yet portable stage and a soul-deep belief in the power of drama. That catchphrase has inspired generation after generation of artists, yet history shows it’s also been routinely disdained by egotistical producers and audiences thirsty for spectacle. Today’s off-Loop theaters wrestle with whether they should–or can–compete with the high-tech extravaganzas that dominate the for-profit entertainment marketplace, but the conflict dates back to long before theater became a commercial enterprise.

In medieval England, for example, mystery plays were first put on during religious festivals by amateurs–local craftsmen who wanted to dedicate their skills as carpenters, masons, or whatever to the glory of God. Different guilds enacted the individual plays in such Christian epics as the York, Chester, and Coventry cycles, which covered the Bible from creation to Judgment Day marathon-style (the York cycle comprises 48 plays). We might well believe that Christ’s crucifixion here gave deeper meaning to the phrase “two planks and a passion.” But all too soon the form became an exercise in self-aggrandizement by the businessmen who ran the guilds and bankrolled the shows. Outspending one another on special effects and hiring journeymen actors to play Jesus, Mary, and the other biblical characters once portrayed by community members, they helped destroy the tradition they intended to elevate.

In his 1983 comedy Two Planks and a Passion, being given its U.S. premiere by Famous Door Theatre Company, Anthony Minghella casts a genial, thoughtful eye on the transformation of the mystery cycle from a truly participatory spiritual and cultural phenomenon into, well, showbiz. A charming, well-acted ensemble piece originally written for the Northcott Theatre Company in Exeter, England, the play doesn’t belabor any analogies with cultural crises in our own time. It isn’t a thinly disguised Thatcher-era plea for increased arts funding, for example, though the tension between extravagant directors and penny-pinching civic leaders is a running theme; and Minghella is hardly advocating a return to the days when theater was a completely amateur endeavor. But he reminds modern audiences that a precious sense of communal values and connections was lost when theater’s spiritual, artistic, and financial aspects diverged.

Minghella–best known as director and screenwriter of The English Patient and Truly Madly Deeply and a sometime contributing writer to the “Inspector Morse” TV mystery series–has set his story in York, England, in 1392. It’s almost time for the feast of Corpus Christi, and the painters’ guild is preparing for its annual enactment of the crucifixion. They’re preoccupied with the same problems that vex theater folk today: how to memorize lines (a task made harder by the peasants’ illiteracy), the actors’ rightness for their roles (a young apprentice is worried that his emerging beard will disqualify him from playing the Virgin Mary), and–worst of all–financial cutbacks in the face of escalating production costs. One possible solution is for the painters to team up with the masons–a notion shocking to men who revel in their competition with other guilds. Intensifying the conflict is King Richard II’s unexpected arrival in York: this year’s pageant will be a command performance.

Yet theater is the last thing on the 25-year-old monarch’s mind. He’s in York for a much-needed vacation from court intrigue, accompanied by his beloved, sickly wife, Anne of Bohemia. Also on the royal agenda is a rendezvous with his male “favorite”–Robert de Vere, the earl of Oxford. Bestowing special honors on his handsome friend, Richard has stirred anger among ambitious members of the aristocracy and clergy, who’ve forced Robert’s exile. (The situation recalls that of Richard’s great-grandfather, Edward II, who also elevated his lover, Piers Gaveston, alienating his parliament–a conflict depicted in Marlowe’s Edward II, seen here recently in simultaneous Journeymen and Red Hen productions.)

The odd relationship among Richard, Anne, and Robert–played here as a variation on Noel Coward’s “design for living” in his play of the same name–stirs rumor among some but not all of the townsfolk. “Most men love most men more than their wives,” snaps Geoffrey Le Kolve, sponsor of the painters’ guild, to his gossipy wife Kathryn, who’s banned her husband from her bedroom. She prefers to seek spiritual guidance–and other forms of stimulation–from Father Melton, the frisky priest directing the passion play Le Kolve’s guild is producing. But though the Le Kolves are sexually estranged, they’re both status-seeking social climbers united in their lust for prominence, adding the French “Le” to their name out of pure pretension. When they learn that the king is in town, the normally stingy Geoffrey throws cost-conscious conservatism to the winds in an aim to put on the best-looking show in the cycle. His principal rival is the mayor, William Selby, whose political position entitles him to play host to the king and his party. Some entitlement: the mischievous monarch toys with blustery, buffoonish Selby by forcing him to dig holes in his most prized possession–a beautiful green yard–so Richard can play a newfangled game he calls golf.

Sometimes recalling a medieval variation on the film A Private Function or the English sitcom Keeping Up Appearances, Two Planks and a Passion has plenty of fun with the growing competition between the Selbys and the Le Kolves, a rivalry that Richard, Robert, and Anne exploit for their own mean-spirited amusement. Like cold-war heads of state bankrupting their treasuries in a vain arms race, Selby and Le Kolve spend themselves into ruin. For his guild’s dramatization of the slaughter of the innocents, Selby hires a touring ham actor to play Herod, further tarting up the play with vulgar humor and gruesome special effects so gleefully tasteless they’d warm the cockles of a movie producer’s heart, if he had one. And Le Kolve, egged on by his manipulative wife and her priestly playmate, decides to replace his regular cast with some new faces–including, of all things, a real girl as the Virgin. Yet when the pageant is finally performed, what touches the hearts of the royals and the real audience in the Theatre Building’s cozy north auditorium is a traditional rendition of the passion: it captures in a way no special effects ever could the cruelty and pathos of Jesus’s suffering–and of the human condition it’s symbolized for centuries to Christians and non-Christians alike.

Abigail Deser, whose staging gave resonance to Roadworks’ shallow Disappeared earlier this season, effectively mines the sweet, quirky warmth at the core of Two Planks and a Passion. Dan Rivkin and Elaine Carlson are earthy and funny as the Selbys; Raymond Fox, Mary Cross, and Patrick New nicely capture the privileged carelessness of Richard, Anne, and Robert (though New’s diction is too slushy for his aristocratic character); Nathan Rankin brings a comical yet credible sense of outrage to the archbishop of York, horrified at the vulgar commercialization of a religious event; Brad David Reed’s Father Melton is the quintessential director in love with spectacle; and Scott Kennedy and Douglas Vickers are touching as the men portraying Mary and Jesus in the climactic tableau. Best of all are Larry Neumann Jr. and Laura T. Fisher as the Le Kolves–he a crabbed, loveless little bureaucrat obsessed with a success he’ll never achieve, she a would-be woman of the world stifled by her social condition and smallness of mind.

The tacky black feather trim around Fisher’s collar is a deft touch from costume designer Kristine Knanishu, who’s done a fine job dressing the commoners, though the royals’ more elegant clothing comes off looking chintzy. Roderick Peeples’s sound design inventively mixes music (from plainsong to New Age chanting) and sounds (animal cries, crowd noise, clanging bells); Kevin Snow’s simple-looking yet intricate set depicts the town square, the rival burghers’ homes, and the perambulating wagon on which the mystery cycle is performed.

It took Famous Door more than two planks and a passion to do this play so well. But then the formula was always more an ideal than a reality, and no one can accuse this company of swamping Minghella’s sweet, wistful little play in stagecraft and ignoring its all-important heart.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Brad Miller.