By Donna Herman
G.K. Chesterton, the early 20th Century British man of letters said “I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.” I only wish the committee that wrote Who Would Be King, currently playing at Ars Nova through April 1st, had taken it to heart. Presented by the Cambridge, MA based group Liars & Believers, the program says the play is written by the LAB Ensemble and then lists 13 names. Three people can’t come to an agreement on what to eat for lunch, how can thirteen people write a cohesive script? Short version…they can’t.
LAB is an experimental theater company that creates original live shows with music, movement, masks, puppets, videos, clowning, live bands…you get the drift. They create the shows in collaboration with audiences and artists of all kinds, and Who Would Be King is no exception. It’s about a king named Saul who is tapped by God after the people ask for a king. He is a farmer, anointed by a prophet named Sam who finds him looking for his lost donkey. Although this follows the broad strokes of the bible story, the company doesn’t see it as a theatrical version of that narrative. They see their play as a reimagined story “inspired by the idea of a man who tries his best but is swallowed by insecurity.” The LAB Ensemble started creating this work in 2015 and have gone through many revisions, workshops and feedback loops with audiences. What has wound up on stage at Ars Nova in New York shows promise in the first half hour, then devolves into confusion and detachment.
The bible story of King Saul is long and complicated and there are a lot of disputed elements. However, the basics are that he was the first King of Israel, appointed by God. He took the tribes and created a single nation. He was a strong, tall, handsome, moral, man. He was exemplary in every way, but he failed the most important commandment by God, to “wipe out Amalek,” the ultimate enemy of the Jews who had pledged to kill them all. Although Saul had the opportunity to do so, he didn’t. For failing to obey God’s commandment, Saul was removed as the King, and David (of David and Goliath fame) was made King in his stead.
The clowning opening of Who Would Be King works well. The people, known as The Bumbleheads, worship chickens and want a king to cure everything from a stubbed toe to unemployment to wilting crops. The company are accomplished physical actors and they play well with one another. This is clearly a milieu they’re familiar with. And given the current political climate, we are ripe to receive a message concerning a king who does not turn out to be the savior it was hoped he’d be. The prophet Sam (Rebecca Lehrhoff) and the angel Agnes (Rachel Wiese) duly find Saul (Glen Moore) out looking for his donkey Daisy and anoint him King. He is humble, strong, and willing to do his best and manages to turn the ragtag Bumbleheads into a fighting force that vanquishes the enemy. He tries to follow the commandments of God and rid the earth of the evil Amalekites, but his people keep a few fat sheep and he lets Agag live. Sam steps in and slays Agag, and says that God is pissed.
The problem is that LAB doesn’t want to tell the bible story, but they haven’t figured out how to craft the story they do want to tell. The bible is very specific. It doesn’t matter how virtuous you are in all other aspects, if you don’t follow God’s commandments to the letter, you’re toast. It is harder to paint the picture of a man “swallowed by his own insecurity” as the LAB dramaturg describes the Saul of Who Would Be King. He’s humble, not vain, good looking, strong, vanquishes the enemy, but the minute D shows up, he turns into a jealous maniac. Despite the pleas of his son, Jonny (Jesse Garlick), Saul winds up banishing D, then trying to hunt her down. In the end, we have no real idea what happened to Saul to turn him from a rational person, doing his best in an unusual situation, to a paranoid maniac. And it’s a shame because there’s a lot of promise in the premise that doesn’t see the light of day.
Who Would Be King Conceived & Directed by Jason Slavick; Music & Lyrics by Jay Mobley; Written by the LAB Ensemble
WITH: Veronica Barron (D); Jesse Garlick (Jonny); Rebecca Lehrhoff (Samuel); Jay Mobley (Singer); Glen Moore (Saul); Rachel Wiese (Agnes)
Producer, Becca Leifer; Stage Manager, Julia Fioravanti; Costume Design by Kendra Bell; Fight Design by Ted Hewlett; Lighting Design by Aaron Sherkow; Dramaturg, Amanda Faye Martin; Scenic Design by Marc Ewart; Props & Scenic Design by Rebecca Lehrhoff; Sound Engineer, Grace Oberhofer; Lighting Engineer, Bethany Naylor; Set Builder, Ben Lieberson; Artistic Associate, Rachel Hock. Presented by Liars & Believers at Ars Nova 511 West 54th Street, NYC. For tickets visit: https://web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/967389/1488344400000