By Donna Herman
Did you know that the first play that was written and published in this country, in 1714 by Robert Hunter, a Colonial Governor of New York State, has never been performed until now? That fact alone made me curious to see Peculiar Works Project’s production of Androboros (Villain of the State). Well, that and the fact that it’s playing at the legendary Fraunces Tavern Museum. Which, subsequent to the play’s publication became General George Washington’s headquarters during the American Revolution. Fraunces Tavern is still an operating restaurant, but there’s also a museum there and somehow I’ve never been to either, although I’m a NYC history buff.
So it was with high expectations that I took myself off to Fraunces Tavern Museum for the opening night of what the press release promised was a version of Androboros (Villain of the State), adapted for today by SM Dale, that “exposes many surprising comparisons to the current political scene…full of witty wordplay, slapstick and scatological humor that are just as comical today.” The play was supposedly written as a theatrical roman á clef that satirizes Hunter’s frustrations with trying to govern an Assembly full of stubborn and combative Colonials who had already endured a handful of horrible leaders forced upon them.
Androboros (Villain of the State), is a complicated tale that, in part, is based on a true incident in early New York History involving Trinity Church, the Vestment Scandal of 1714. Added to the confusion are the Restoration Comedy language and plot twists and turns that are unfamiliar to a modern audience. As well, director Ralph Lewis has chosen to go high concept here with a stylized commedia dell’arte production that has everyone looking like, well, clowns in whiteface and poorly done colonial garb. So even though there is, at several points, a narrator of sorts who speaks in current vernacular, the plot is impossible to grasp in anything other than a general sense. Unfortunately, the addition of 10 original songs to the equation don’t serve to enlighten any plot points or give us any insight into any character’s inner monologue.
Simply put, the play is a farce – broad and improbable. For farce to succeed you need context and an understanding of what is being lampooned. If you don’t have that, you can’t possibly succeed. You also need the audience to understand what is being said. Lin Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” would not have succeeded as an entertainment in 1776 because the language would have been too foreign, the references unfamiliar, and the style too confusing. This production of Androboros (Villain of the State) today just doesn’t work for those same reasons.
Androboros (Villain of the State) by Governor Robert Hunter (1666-1734), Adapted by SM Dale, Directed by Ralph Lewis, Additional Text by Peter Davis, Original Music by Spencer Katzman
WITH: Trav S.D. (The Teller); Iftiaz Haroon (The Keeper); Matt Roper (Androboros); Zoe Raphael (Deputy/Flip); Oscar Castillo (Tom); Benjamin Strate (Speaker) Roy Koshy (Coxcomb); Hank Lin (Mulligrub); Caiti Lattimer (Aesop); Bianca Ilich (Doodlesack/Messenger); Kendra Augustin (Solemn); Oliver Burns (Fizzle); Amy Marin (alt. Doodlesack/Messenger); Yasmin Schancer (alt. Aesop); Maria Dessena (Keyboards); Rob Mitzner (Percussion).
Dramaturgy by Barbara Yoshida; Costumes by Cathy Small; Lighting by David Castaneda; Choreography by Diana Byrne; Movement Partnering by Lynn Neuman; Projections by Blue Bliss; Stage Management by Amy Marin and Yasmin Schancer; Artwork by Ward Sutton; Casting by Nomi Tichman; Press Representative, Scotti Rhodes Public Relations; Producers, Ralph Lewis, Barry Rowell & Catherine Porter. Hosted by Fraunces Tavern® Museum, 54 Pearl Street every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in October 2017 at 7pm. For tickets call 212-425-1778 x213 or visit http://www.frauncestavernmuseum.org/events-calendar/2017/8/31/the-world-premiere-of-americas-first-play