A Pagan Out of History


In the pantheon of playwrights, Mac Wellman may well serve as our patron saint of the patois, the prince of the pidgin. He luxuriates in wordplay, jargon, linguistic obscurities, and bad grammar. So the spareness of the vocabulary he employs in Hypatia comes as something of a surprise. While the script occasionally rings with an archaism or unusual bit of argot, much of it consists of one-syllable words ceaselessly repeated. “Why why why why why?” our heroine Hypatia asks again and again. A fine question.

Hypatia, directed by Ridge Theatre’s Bob McGrath, opens with a series of images projected onto a giant scrim. The pictures slide into one another, forming a palimpsest of Byzantine tapestry, mosaic, and fresco, deftly and fancifully locating the play in Alexandria, 415 A.D. Behind the scrim appears Hypatia (the lovely Sophia Fox-Long), a pagan mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. So renowned was her beauty she had to conduct all her lectures obscured by a screen. While Hypatia postulates and pontificates in a lavender-pajama ensemble, figures from her own time and a bevy of media types from ours surround her, offering commentary on her character and situation. Each actor speaks in jerky, zombified rhythms and moves accordingly, like music-box ballerinas, shooting-gallery ducks, or windup soldiers.

These initial images emerge startling, beautiful, and clear, but the piece soon loses its specificity and momentum. The lighting—designed by Jane Cox—illuminates the actors so that they seem to float upon Molly Hughes’s set. Similarly, most of the actors seem to float above their roles, enunciating distinctly, gesturing in clockwork fashion, but never really establishing relationships to either the text or one another. McGrath has directed the play as though it were a series of brief, hermetic monologues, which rarely relate outward. Just as the scrim, behind which nearly all of the play occurs, distances us from the action, so does the actors’ general air of detachment. This eventually grows tedious. Each moment shines luminous and intriguing, but—like a jewel in a glass case or a beauty behind a screen—is ultimately untouchable. In a mathematical conundrum unworthy of Hypatia, the whole adds up to far less than the sum of its parts.

This coldness of the direction might have been thawed had Wellman infused this piece with his typical excess. But despite a few 50-cent words and a running joke about the pronunciation of “cipher,” the script sends up few linguistic flares. Wellman does, however, employ the device of repetition, and this meets with some success. When a word is said again and again, it begins to break down and sound like new words, fostering closer listening. Sometimes Wellman encourages this devolution, as when Peter the Reader announces, “Temporalities. Temp. Temp. Tempt.”

Tempting the show certainly is, but, like Hypatia’s sexy belly dance, it’s all a big tease. Hypatia was eventually stabbed to death by Christian monks, then burned, yet the production nearly elides that event, paying tribute with a quartet of gruesome photos and then progressing to a new incident. For all the repetition, simple language, and straightforward delivery, her story never really gets told.

The story certainly gets told in Willow Cabin’s production of Lucrece, translated by Thornton Wilder from André Obey’s Le Viol de Lucrece. But it arrives at its finish without great effect. Our eponymous heroine (Linda Powell), wife of military muckamuck Collatine (John Bolger), reigns as the paragon of wifely Roman virtue. Then the emperor’s villainous son, Tarquin (David Paluck, who has a mustache, though not a twirly one), gets a yen to sully the sheets of the marriage bed, raping Lucrece. Appalled at her loss of honor, she suffers shame and indecision, then determines to do a hara-kiri in the presence of the gathered city.

In the play’s opening scene, a soldier speaks of “a spectacle one can only call Roman, displaying at the same time grandeur and simplicity.” Such a spectacle seems to be at the heart of Wilder’s and director Edward Berkeley’s aims—the result: skillful and considered, if rarely enlivening. On a shiny, heavily raked stage—white above, red underneath—the actors speak clearly and without affect, moving in much the same manner. And just as the simple language is often punctuated with a grand Homeric simile, the straightforward tale is intercut with classically styled choral interludes.

The chorus, a man and a woman, initially function much like the supernumeraries inHypatia—providing the play-by-play like a couple of ESPN vets. Though the effect initially proves distancing, a change occurs in the fourth and final act. Previously contented with narration, the pair now begin to discuss the train of action, even to argue with each other, appealing to the audience in their debate. This argument lends another layer to the play, infusing its classical form with modern sensibilities, rendering it more alive. The delights of the fourth act don’t atone for the stolidness of the first three, but they make the play’s final moments unfold more poignantly. It’s a pity this Roman candle doesn’t send off more sparks.