Chicago Medieval Players

at the Fine Arts Building

Rare even for medieval drama, Queen Hester is definitely off the beaten path. A Purim play (or purimspil) thought to be the work of Jewish actor-musicians at the Tudor court circa 1530, this exotic work was briefly performed, then disappeared into obscurity (this may well be its first American production). The work of exiles in England, Queen Hester (based on the Old Testament Book of Esther) poignantly portrays exiles in ancient Persia. It describes the near massacre of the Jews, a disaster the title character prevented; this nonevent is still celebrated at the feast of Purim.

The Bible tells how at a seven-day feast King Ahasuerus of Persia ordered Queen Vashti to dance seductively before his guests. The proto-feminist Vashti refused, was deposed, and, from among the kingdom’s virgins, the learned Jewish lady Esther was chosen to replace her. Later her cousin Mordecai aroused the anger of Haman, the king’s counselor, because he refused to bow to him. In the vengeful logic of the time, Haman resolved to kill all the Jews to get at Mordecai. Happily, Esther talked Ahasuerus out of it, neatly exposing Haman in the process. When Haman was killed, the Jews triumphed over one more enemy (temporarily, of course, as always). So, geared to the Persian new year, the feast of Purim commemorates this Jewish heroine. This year it falls on March 3.

Like paintings of the period, this early Renaissance play charmingly relocates the story (one courtier casually talks of “war with Scotland and France”) and trims it to its purposes. The Vashti story is discreetly dropped (perhaps to keep the wise and modest Hester from being anyone’s replacement), as is the troublesome Mordecai. The just, diligent, and noble-minded king is named Assuerus. The chancellor Haman, the scourge of the Jews, emerges as another Herod: with a mouth to gobble up the world, this Iago-like hypocrite and flatterer accuses the Jews of the very rapacity he’s caught in–and finds himself hanged from the very harness he’d reserved for his enemies. (Henry VIII’s Jewish players clearly had contemporary persecutions in mind when depicting Haman’s hubris.)

To keep the legend both universal and human, there’s also a rollicking allegorical sequence in which Pride, Adulation, and Ambition form a sort of commoners’ chorus and vociferously complain how Haman just stole their acts–they might as well sign over their sins to him and get drunk (presumably the last vice left them). More comic relief comes from a sometimes tedious, railing jester named Hardy Dardy who keeps putting Haman in his place; he’s a far cry from the wiser than words Fool of Lear.

Of course, even late medieval drama made no attempt to develop character; as emblems of larger forces and archetypes as obvious as Pride and Ambition, these biblical figures have no more perspective than the paintings of the period: they exist to edify. But they can also entertain, a discovery the Chicago Medieval Players are happy to share.

Lit only by candles and two low-intensity lamps, the action swirls before the king’s throne, while characters disappear behind it into the “traverse” used to temporarily conceal characters from the action (very useful when there are things the king is not supposed to hear). Breathing new life into the sing-song verse, Susan Pellowe’s staging rounds out the flat stuff with essential grace notes. As Assuerus, Charles Munro’s Persian monarch may confer power too quickly on Scott Lynch-Gidding’s unctuous Haman–but Assuerus’s rage at Haman’s betrayal of trust is as real as Reagan’s never is. Playing Hester’s uncle Mardocheus, Howard Kaplan lightly wears the dignity of the Talmudic scholar in exile. Linda LeVeque’s artlessly self-effacing Hester can sway the king without seeming to.

As the script requires, music heightens the tale. The Medieval Players employ a then-popular ditty, “What remedy . . .” sung to the tune of “Greensleeves” by the disgusted trio of Pride, Adulation, and Ambition (Paul Engelhardt, Amy Frazier, and Edward Lasky); a haunting plain chant of Psalm 22, sung offstage as Hester prays for help in persuading her husband to halt the massacre; and, as the customary concluding valedictory to Henry VIII, the five-part motet “Nil maius . . .” (composed to be a gift to that king from an Italian dignitary). These richly rendered offerings are accompanied by Emilysue Pinnell on the vielle, an early and very spiritual-sounding violin. Finally, to keep the spell alive, during the intermission the Players serve homemade ale (or fruit punch) along with the Purim sweetmeats hamantashen, named after Haman’s ears. (Of course, Haman lost a lot more than his hearing . . .)

Though no play for all seasons, Queen Hester is more than a 450-year-old curiosity. Ancient as it feels, it’s also a richly contrasted ritual-legend that nicely revives itself in the telling–and the hearing.