At the juncture in the road where Shakespeare’s cross-dressers meet up with Monty Python’s blithering knights, playwright Moira Buffini pitches her medieval traveling-circus tent, Silence. Spilling over with farcical byplay, pointed anachronism, and sexual high jinks, the comedy also casts a darkness so unsettling that at times you shiver even as you’re laughing.
Buffini has based her story on an allegedly historical incident—in the year 1000 A.D., England’s King Ethelred forced a marriage between the 30-year-old Princess Ymma of Normandy and the 14-year-old Viking Lord Silence of Cumbria. In this fantastic narrative, the reluctant bride and groom discover on their wedding night that Silence is a girl, raised to believe herself a boy. Grasping a strategy for turning misfortune to advantage, the bitter proto-feminist princess makes a pact with Silence to stick together and hide her secret. “As a woman you’d have lost everything,” Ymma instructs her. “As a man, you have it all!” When the foolish, vacillating king, inspired by a dream, decides to marry Ymma himself, she lands a knockout punch on his bald pate. Then the newly married couple flee north to Silence’s home in Cumbria. They go stealthily, accompanied by an overeager young priest named Roger, Ymma’s long-suffering handmaiden Agnes, and the strapping royal guard Eadric Longshaft. As the schlemiel of a king morphs into a murderous general laying waste to all in his pursuit of Ymma, the travelers grapple with lust run amok and couples odd and odder.
Buffini drops Ymma—a smart, modern-style woman—into the Middle Ages. Beset by an abusive history and a psyche worthy of a made-for-Lifetime TV movie, the princess thirsts for sexual freedom and power. Ymma’s feminist manifesto can seem jarring, but her courage and style make her fun to watch.
Ymma’s foil, the king, comes across as a more compelling creation. Seen at first as a cowering bumbler, he epitomizes the horror of the coward turned tyrant. With Hitler-esque rhetoric, he wins approving roars from his soldiers: “I will drive that Viking blight from my shores,” he cries chillingly. “I will root out His pagan foes and do His apocalypse for Him.”
The dialogue veers from biblical and lyrical cadences to brash colloquialisms. One minute you are soaring à la King James, the next cut short by a sitcom-worthy retort. Buffini’s wit usually—though not always—triumphs in this deliberate clash of period and style. Director Ginevra Bull straddles these shifts in tone uneasily, but the production can be effervescent and taut. And the nimble physical comedy is a treat. Watch, for example, as the five bedraggled travelers jog up and down on a bed-become-horse cart, as if journeying day and night, through sun and downpours.
The players bring all this off with aplomb. Jessica Claire’s Ymma bears herself regally, spitting her words with haughty relish, and Jessica Chandlee Smith, as her exasperated maid, laces her servility with sass. Abigail Savage is so convincing as the boy Silence that it’s hard to believe she’s a girl; she exudes a sweetness that feels youthful and innocent rather than saccharine. Chan Casey makes hilarious work of Roger, the goody-goody priest with the wayward erection, and Jens Martin Krummel is a hoot as the rough-spoken Eadric, who reads thoughts. Matthew Maher’s Ethelred begins as a babyish king throwing tantrums, prancing about in boxer shorts and a tin crown, but by the end he’s become that most frightening figure, a buffoon with power.
Silence overflows with ideas: sexual politics, intolerance, tyranny, class barriers. These cascade down, not always coherently. But if you ride Buffini’s rapids, you will end up amused, provoked, even a little shaken by the experience—which, for all its humor, resonates disturbingly in our own age of holy war.