Director Mark Jackson may not have set out to deliver a message when he wrote God’s Plot, Shotgun Players’ 20th Anniversary season ender, but his world premiere play, ringing forth with the weight of Paul Revere and enough comedic literary talent to make it insanely enjoyable, sends a robust call to arms.
At its center, the production is a layered love story. There are young men and one woman, aflame with passion and grand expectations; several characters with vigorous attachments to their faith of choice; and colonists in love with the early American dream of freedom.
The action takes place in a brilliantly designed set by Nina Ball that makes use of two tables, a few chairs, a couple bales of hay, and a 4×5 foot rolling platform to suggest everything from a barn to a courtroom to a river.
William Darby, a man of letters, is tasked with tutoring Tryal Pore. The young lovers soon discover a connection beyond Shakespeare, but hide their extracurricular activities from Tryal’s puritanical mother, father, and the ever-present eyes of God.
Meanwhile, Darby and his drinking companions seek revenge against the tyrannical forces that keep them from manifesting their various destinies through means of a play.
Set in a minuscule Virginia settlement in 1665, the play-within-a-play is Ye Barre & Ye Cubbe, a real-life piece of theater written by William Darby. The King of England, political fancy dancing and religious persecution are in its satirical trigger sites. A presentation of the play sets off accusations ranging—and raging—from fornication to fundamentalism to Our Father who art in Heaven is watching You.
The players end up in court, re-enacting the play in diluted form and winning reprieve from papa Pore, who is the town’s moral and much-conflicted-of-interest judge.
The final postlogue, delivered by Carl Holvick-Thomas, whose impressive lungs tender Jackson’s long-winding monologues without seeming to inhale, tells us the cast is nearly wiped out by life’s calamities. But the enduring spirit, the quest to “go west” is undying. That, in swift form, is the play’s message and one the audience, perhaps swept up in today’s Occupy movement, responded to with alacrity.
The cast is impressive. Juliana Lustenader snaps up the role of Tryal with gusto; embodying women then, now, and forevermore as an intelligent, sensual, courageous creature. Jackson squeezes out every drop of her spectacular talent as she narrates the plot in deep-voiced songs deftly accompanied by bassist Travis Kindred and Josh Pollock on the banjo.
Holvick-Thomas proves himself an equal match and the entire cast shows not only their individual strengths, but the power of a well-directed ensemble. There’s just the right amount of deference in Daniel Bruno’s brew master and perfect tension in Kevin Clarke’s Captain Pore. And the comic relief in Anthony Nemirovsky’s Cornelius provides fine balance for the pompous, threatening double roles played with command by John Mercer.
All along, Jackson pokes fun at everyone and everything, which would be a cheap trick, except that he does it with sentences so gorgeous you want to scribble them along the edge of your program and humor that causes you laugh and nudge the person next to you to prolong the joke. Even so, the play isn’t simply a lark: there’s a sense of honor in the very people and institutions Jackson satirizes, His affection for theater and truly, for America, is obvious and uplifting.
It’s rare to find a production that offers so much substance and Shotgun Players, which closes the 2011 season with God’s Plot, can march into the new year triumphant. The four actor community theater founded by Artistic Director Patrick Dooley twenty-one years ago has used its permanent home on Ashby to grow astonishing playwrights like Jackson and a company of actors who meet the needs and high expectations of the Bay Area theater community.
Lou Fancher is a writer and journalist who lives in the Bay Area.
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