|Omar Robinson looks lost in Patrick Gabridge's Fire on Earth. Photo: Jeffrey Mosser.|
I confess I'm only reluctantly writing about Patrick Gabridge's Fire on Earth (at the Factory Theatre from Fresh Ink Theatre through Feb. 6). I don't much like delivering bad news to small or fringe companies - but this time my protests were only met with poignant requests for a rigorous dramaturgical analysis.
I greatly admire that spirit, of course; the only trouble is that this time there's almost too much to diagnose, and the doctor doesn't know where to begin. You can tell everyone involved in this production is smart and talented and earnest; so it's hard to understand how it all went so wrong!
But I suppose the best place to start is indeed with the play itself. Mr. Gabridge is a local author of some note, and I've often admired the tight comedy-drama cameos he has produced for the Mill 6 "T Plays" and other festivals. But here, grappling with an ungainly, contradictory chunk of history (the first translation of the Bible into English, completed just before Henry VIII began dreaming of divorce) all his skill seems to either desert him, or divert him into confusing dramatic eddies, and wild swings in tone and focus.
To be fair, the playwright is attempting to limn a daunting dramatic landscape - in brief, a portrait of the intrigue surrounding William Tyndale, who produced the first English translation of the Bible in the early sixteenth century. Tyndale claimed his version was more accurate than the Latin of the Vulgate, the official Catholic version - and what's more, his interpretation had a Protestant slant (he translated "priest" as "elder," for instance) that undercut the Church's position (and hence its power) as the great intercessor between God and man.
Needless to say, once the vicars of Christ got wind of this, Tyndale was a wanted man, and his Bible was produced on the run (and on the Continent). But his followers, both spiritual and commercial (for there was money to be made in selling Bibles) often ran afoul of the Catholic hierarchy all the same, and the two whom Gabridge treats in detail - John Tewkesbury and John Frith - both became martyrs to the cause (as Tyndale did, too, eventually).
But you can see the theatrical problems inherent in this diffuse situation: the protagonist is always in motion, yet is essentially inward and dramatically passive, while the real "plot" lands on the shoulders of his subordinates, who are opposed in character and yet somehow find their way to similar fates. And alas, Gabridge is unable to manage the balancing act required to pull all these disparate strands together and develop them in parallel; indeed, the arcs of his characters don't seem to exist, and neither do their relationships, to be honest. What we get instead is a patchwork of lightly ironic comic gambits mixed with heavy-handed horror tropes (along with some amusingly mordant sketches of two bishops who might be dubbed Mean and Meaner).
|St. John's Gospel in the 1526 Tyndale Bible.|
But this isn't really enough to hold us - and it's also hard to miss a certain millennial naivete in Gabridge's portrait of the period. His characters all seem to believe that "the Bible wants to be free!," or something like that; little do they dream that the decline of the Catholic Church would only leave a power vacuum into which equally-ruthless nation-states would quickly rush. Indeed, soon there were new heresies, new heretics, new tortures; you could easily argue that Tyndale's Bible - which only two years after his death became the basis of the official Anglican version - only contributed to a century of renewed religious persecution (certainly its publication inspired no Christian-libertarian utopia).
So the outcomes here are twisted with even a higher degree of moral irony than usual; and to be blunt, Gabridge's idealistic heroes were probably political dupes. Perhaps sensing this problem, the playwright hacks off the ironic end of his strange, eventful history, wrapping with the martyrdom of two of his principals (and ignoring the swift downfall of their killers) - but I'm afraid this only makes the overlong script suddenly feel oddly truncated. In the end I think a complete rewrite is required to make it viable - one with a clear focus, on a single character, and a single conflict - and even, if possible, in a single tone.
This would certainly help the performers of the play's next iteration (if there is one). At Fresh Ink there were at least two amusing turns, by Scott Colford and Brett Milanowski as that pair of villainous bishops (Milanowski in particular all but twirled a virtual mustache) - but alas, there wasn't much more beyond that. Bob Mussett made a pale Tyndale, and newcomer James Fay lacked real depth as Frith; meanwhile Omar Robinson (who made such a strong impression earlier this year in Superior Donuts) thrashed about as Tewkesbury. At least the set and lighting were memorable - designer Natalie Laney made imaginative use of props (such as the cascades of Bibles that poured from the tech booth), and Chris Bocchiaro's lighting was consistently atmospheric. I never felt that director Rebecca Bradshaw had a clear grip on the material, but then I wasn't sure how she could have. I'm afraid this play's future all comes down to its author, and whether he can find in his sprawling first draft a viable dramatic core.