By Sarah Downs
Good old King Arthur. There is no more revered a king of legend, nor one whose flame has burned so brightly over the centuries, the subject of myriad films, plays and musicals. Granted, Arthur is a lot more interesting than, say, Ethelred the Unready, and certainly a lot more romantic. In her own unique take on this tradition, Liba Vaynberg has found a clever way to invoke all things Arthurian in her delightfully funny play Round Table.
The play moves between two worlds and two theatrical spaces: the modern vs. the fantastical, and ‘mis en scene’ vs. direct audience address. In this context an embattled King Arthur stands front and center, regardless of century. He ‘lives’ metaphorically in the enchanted swords Excalibur, pulled from the stone, and Clarent, bestowed on him by the Lady of the Lake. Arthur must constantly fight off challengers who would deprive him of his weaponry. They seek the other worldly control the swords bestow upon the holder.
In that struggle, the beautiful Morgan Argente (Sharina Martin) wields a sword and dagger in a refreshing take on the medieval damsel. The great wizard Merlin, the knight Tristan and Arthur’s bitter half-brother Mordred (Matthew Bovee) all make their appearance. And swords, lots of swords. The twist is, they aren’t real. By which I mean this is not an historical drama. “Forsooths”, dagged sleeves, armor, the clank of metal on metal — it all signals the world of fantasy. Naturally, everyone is a knight or a king. No one is ever Master of the Slop Bucket.
When we see Medieval garb onstage, we are in the land of LARP (Live Action Role Play). I know — but be ye not distressed! This is not a meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronisms. Vaynberg has built on this plot device as an integral metaphor for her modern storytelling. In LARP, where all actions require consent, you ‘live’ a scripted life, up to choosing when that life ends. One can understand the appeal of that much control over one’s fate.
Weaving the legend of King Arthur story into the life of a modern day couple, Vaynberg has written something new and fresh. Zach (Craig Wesley Divino) and Laura (Liba Vaynberg) meet on the best blind date ever, forging an instant connection over shy conversation and a glass of wine. She writes fiction; he writes fantasy. She ghost writes bodice rippers and he writes for a major television series set in the Middle Ages. As she falls more in love with Zach, Laura discovers he has a deep, dark secret … he does LARP (Live Action Role Play).
Zach is, of course, King Arthur’s modern incarnation (or vice versa). With his authentic likeability Craig Wesley Divino endows the sincere, slightly awkward Zach with a touch of the leading man. There is more to Zach than meets the eye, and it’s not all Medieval. Zach’s brother Kay (Karl Gregory) exists solely only on the plane of reality. Life is LARP enough. As Kay, Gregory gives a performance both heartfelt and snappy. He delivers as the sardonic wit and nurturing yet snarky elder brother. Divino and he are so easy together you believe their family relationship implicitly.
Indeed all of the acting has a similarly light touch. Even the melodrama is not overly melodramatic. Director Geordie Broadwater has guided the cast confidently through the pathways of entwined real and imaginary worlds, with strong choices that do not impinge on the individual performances. He gives the complex, often poetic language space to breathe.
Sharina Martin glows with a modern girl next door quality behind her bewitching alter ego. Morgan Argante, alternately plotting Arthur’s downfall and fiercely championing the king in battle against the knight Tristan. Matthew Bovee as the imperious Mordred, carries himself with dignified menace in sharp contrast to his ‘real life’ more ordinary self (and his Medieval helmet is a scream). As she does with the everchanging interactions with the audience from behind and through the fourth wall, Vaynberg blends individual character to LARP identity without irony.
In addition to writing Round Table, Vaynberg appears in the play. Rather than write herself some grandstanding diva star turn, she has the confidence to play Laura, giving an understated, sensitive performance as a slightly nerdy woman in a relationship with a slightly nerdier guy. As the interlocutor between the audience and stage Vaynberg is thoughtful and translucent. She also has great comic timing.
Within the limited capacity of Theater C, Set Designer Izmir Ickbal and Lighting Designer Cha See have made a virtue of necessity, embracing the small space as a reflection of an imaginary narrative crowded with mythic characters. It’s a small space but that doesn’t mean you don’t go full-on theatrical. Minimal set pieces do double duty as benches and tree trunks; an elegant scrim is the luminous veil between the worlds of ideation and incarnation.
Round Table is terrific. Liba Vaynberg boasts an impressive gift with language, structure and character. Brandishing whimsy and emotional gravitas with equal vigor, she deftly manages the confluence of fluid worlds to draft a narrative that coheres with near seamless effect. Hie thee hence to 59 East 59th St. (Come on, like I could resist!)
ROUND TABLE, written by Liba Vaynberg and directed by Geordie Broadwater. With Matthew Bovee, Craig Wesley Divino, Karl Gregory, Sharina Martin, and Liba Vaynberg. Set design by Izmir Ickbal, lighting design by Cha See, costume design by Johanna Pan, sound design by Fan Zhang.
Produced by Fault Line Theatre and Anna & Kitty Inc., at 59E59 Theater (59 East 59th St., between Park and Madison Aves.) Previews begin September 27 for a limited engagement through October 20. Performance schedule is Tuesday – Friday at 7:30 PM; Saturday at 2:30 PM & 7:30 PM; and Sunday at 2:30 PM. Single tickets are $25 ($20 for 59E59 Members). For tickets go to www.59E59.org or call the 59E59 Theater Box Office at 646-892-7999. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.