Perhaps the less said about Silence, the better. Moira Buffini’s play won a British prize upon its premiere in 1999, and was well received when it jumped the pond; but frankly, it’s hard to see why. Perhaps all the gold stars were for good intentions: Ms. Buffini is a founder of the “monsterism” movement, which tempts writers (and theaters) to attempt sprawling scripts that grapple with historical forces, social forces, religious forces, and other, even bigger forces. And Buffini has the courage of her convictions: in Silence she can't stop talking about gender, God, the meaning of life, etc., etc., all while taking us on a guided tour of the bloody reign of Ethelred the Unready - a patch of medieval history as yet unplowed dramatically. Alas, it’s still pretty much unplowed dramatically: Silence is tolerably amusing, but little more, despite the New Rep’s solid production (and the sterling work of its design team).
The trouble is that despite her deep thoughts, Buffini has no idea how to develop - or even hold focus on - the dramatic ideas she stumbles across (such as the Sartrean love triangle of her second act) and to be blunt, she simply has no voice of her own - instead she’s borrowed that of Peter Barnes, author of the classic plague-year farce Red Noses. But why not just do Red Noses? I suppose because that tough-minded classic had no time for sexual empowerment and the other clichés which have become de rigueur on today’s stage. God (if you exist), when I think how tired I am of these tropes, I can only wonder at how bored my poor straight brethren must be – particularly when the postmodern grrl power is presented as baldly as it is here. Needless to say, in Silence, boys turn out to be girls, and men are pigs, and women in trousers save the day. It’s so predictable you can almost say the lines along with the cast, as if you’d stumbled onto some medieval showing of Rocky Horror.
But if the capable actors can’t wring any surprises from the material, at least they keep this rhetorical dog-and-pony show afloat. Hunky Christopher Michael Brody and spunky Anne Gottlieb are probably first among equals in the fine ensemble, which includes a memorably pissed-off Mariana Bassham (above, with Lewis Wheeler) and a reliably wry Michael Kaye, as well as the credibly gender-bending Emily Sproch. Only local stalwart Wheeler fails to satisfy as Ethelred – although much of the fault may lie in his direction. Rick Lombardo manages the three-hour (!) traffic of this stage with his usual capable, if heavy, hand – only he and Wheeler fail to define the play’s hinge moment, when Big Ethel is transformed into Cold Ethel. Wheeler hangs onto the fey, gay stylings of Act I (when Ethelred is only ready for bed) well after the King has got his bloody groove on and laid his own kingdom waste – while the play (and Buffini’s existential musings) depend on the dread of inexorable death that Ethelred is meant to supply. And without that ominous backbeat, these Dark Ages do seem to last for ages.