Ever heard off Terry Pratchett? Me neither, until a few days ago. But it turns out he’s an awfully big deal: a knighted English author who’s written books by the dozens and sold them by the tens of millions since his first was published back in 1971. Pratchett’s great project is the Discworld series of comic fantasy novels. Comprising 41 titles so far, the series chronicles doings on a flat planet supported by four elephants standing atop a giant turtle who swims through space going no one knows where. According to a remarkably entertaining Wikipedia entry purporting to sketch out Pratchett’s universe, “Reality is spread thinly on the Disc, so events may be affected by expectations. . . . Essentially, if something is believed strongly enough, or by enough people, it may become true. . . . This is known as the law of narrative causality.”
Having so far read just the first 108 pages of the 31st Discworld book, Monstrous Regiment, I’m no expert. But it’s already clear that Pratchett’s work falls into that Hitchhiker’s Guide/Doctor Who-esque fun-with-physics genre the Brits seem to like so much—but with a whiff of the 18th-century picaresque thrown in. It’s the sort of thing that might come of crossing, say, the cosmos of a Tolkien with the subversive sensibilities of a Jonathan Swift.
Monstrous Regiment is the source of a new stage adaptation written by Chris Hainsworth and presented at Lifeline Theatre in a delightful staging by Kevin Theis. It centers on Polly Perks, a resourceful young woman who works for her dad at an inn in the troubled duchy of Borogravia. Or at least that’s what she does until she decides to cut her hair, lose the skirt, change her name to Oliver, and join the army.
A big part of the trouble with Borogravia is that it’s governed by a woman who may very well be dead. The Duchess went into seclusion three decades prior to the action of the story, due to the premature demise of her husband. There’s been nary a public peep from her since, but that hasn’t kept her from becoming the Madonna-like subject of a cult of personality. Her image is everywhere. Indeed, many folks pray to it. Polly is required to kiss it when she enlists.
In the absence of any real administration, the Borogravian power vacuum has been filled by a despotic little deity called Nuggan whose list of Abominations includes chocolate, dwarves, shirts with six buttons, and the color blue. It probably goes without saying that he also abhors the idea of women doing “the work of a man” and vice versa. Old Nobodaddy Nuggan adds to the list so often, Pratchett writes, that his holy book is issued in a ring binder.
Nuggan’s edicts have so thoroughly rattled Borogravia’s neighbors that the duchy is constantly under siege. Pratchett is darkly comic about the consequences, especially when it comes to veterans hobbling around on incomplete sets of limbs, their guts held in by their coats. The economy is in shambles, the villages picked clean of young men. Polly’s own brother, Paul, has disappeared into the maw of war; it’s to find him and bring him home that she embarks on her boyish masquerade, joining a squad manned entirely by scrapings from the bottom of the societal barrel. Among her fellow recruits are a troll, an Igor (as in Dr. Frankenstein’s body-part-scavenging assistant), and a suave vampire called Maladict, who, having sworn off human blood, guzzles coffee instead. Each of them has a secret.
Hainsworth has done a fine job of translating Pratchett’s amiable cynicism into sharp theatrical language. His adaptation is witty on its own account and only slightly overlong at two and a half hours. But it’s Theis’s ensemble that bring even the undead to vivid, entertaining life. Starting out jet-set smooth and uber-vampire confident, Michaela Petro suffers amusingly when severe caffeine deprivation brings Maladict this close to breaking his blood-temperance oath. Justine Turner acts her way through thick layers of gray foam costuming to create a droll troll. And Katie McLean Hainsworth steals a whole slew of scenes as Igor the, uh, Igor. Robert Kauzlaric builds an engagingly clueless lieutenant out of air quotes, while Christopher M. Walsh supplies unexpected nuance and a large measure of heart as the squad’s tough, genial NCO. Sarah Price’s Polly is as plucky as she needs to be—and yet her main virtue isn’t heroism or even likability, but the way she invites us into her adventure.
Monstrous Regiment looks like a satire on the flimsiness of traditional gender roles. And to a great extent, that’s what it is. Still, it’s also knowing enough, large enough to recognize the irony of searching for sexual equality on a battlefield. Driving home from Lifeline, I heard a scholar on the radio comment that, given the amount of time the United States has spent in a state of war since 1940, peace is the real aberration. In other words, America, Borogravia—take your pick.