Review: 'Scenes from Court Life, or the whipping boy and his prince' at Yale Repertory Theatre

Tara Kennedy

  • Connecticut Critic
  • Connecticut Critic's Circle

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that the Stuarts and the Bushes had anything in common. Luckily for us, Sarah Ruhl does imagine such things, and the result is the hilarious satire, Scenes from Court Life, a world premiere work at the Yale Repertory Theatre. The play is advertised as “History, remixed” which is an excellent way of describing Ruhl’s newest work. My only experience with her plays is The Vibrator Play, or in the next room which I thoroughly enjoyed. Ruhl’s bawdy banter is still present in this work, but with a number of broader messages dosed in smaller, bite-size portions. 

The show opens with the cast in simple medieval dress performing a 17th century-style dance which suddenly morphs into a country line dance hoedown. It was perfect late 1980s-early 1990s country pop (think Billy Ray Cyrus). The mixing of these two dance styles set the mood for the Medieval Texas highball we were about to imbibe.

The play feels “vignette-y”: it feels like a number of scenes all put together, almost as improvisation, which is how the work was composed: riffing and remixing these two dynasties and seeing where the pieces fit. My husband was frustrated with this style. He felt like the scene would bring up interesting, poignant points and, as quickly as they arrive, they disappear, never to be mentioned again. I could see beyond that, as the performers and the director, Mark Wing-Davey, did a fantastic job weaving the stories together making it appear less abrupt than it might on paper. Honestly, I think it is the direction and the performers that make this play work. 

The actors play multiple roles: to highlight the parallels and to interweave the plot because, as advertised, this is all mixed up. The plot follows the Stuarts after the death of James VI: the courts of Charles I (T. Ryder Smith) and Charles II (Greg Keller) were marked by internal strife due mostly to political and religious infighting. It was so bad that it resulted in the beheading of Charles I and the flight of his heir, Charles II, to Europe until things calmed down. The fictional element entwined into this plot line is a whipping boy, Barnaby (Danny Wolohan), who is Charles II’s best friend and confidant, despite having to take stinging lashes for the prince. 

This is interwoven with loosely parallel stories from the American dynasty of Bush: George H. W. (Smith), Barbara (Mary Shultz), George W. (Keller), Jeb (Wolohan), Laura (Angel Desai), and Columba (Keren Lugo), including the political sparring of siblings George W. Bush and Jeb Bush, and their relationship with their parents, George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush: some real, some imagined. 

The Stuart story is at least somewhat based on fact: Charles I (r.1625-1649) had a bit of a time of it during his reign as King of England; there was lots of infighting in Great Britain during this period, mostly due to money and religion. Pro tip: if you are planning on being a king, it’s not a good idea to pick fights with Parliament. Charles I dismissed Parliament so many times that they got sick of it and decided to rise up against him, with Oliver Cromwell leading the charge. Charles I was beheaded for treason in 1649.  His heir, Charles II, hid in Europe after his father’s execution, essentially to avoid the long Protestant arm of Cromwell. Once Cromwell died in 1658, Charles II was restored to the throne during the (aptly named) Restoration period. And unfortunately, he didn’t seem to learn from the sins of his father: he too kept dismissing Parliament on and off, and eventually dissolved Parliament during his final years of rule. 

The actors were incredible: all of them. Having to switch accents, manner, language, clothes… they all do this with aplomb. They all embodied their characters without lampooning them; this was especially a challenge for Keller as George W. His brilliant performance was dead-on good-old-boy without being a caricature. Wolohan played the far more serious and earnest Jeb excellently. I also was impressed with Lugo’s portrayals of Catherine and Columba: juggling multiple languages in emotionally-charged scenes. Honestly, every actor gave great performances with roles that were extremely challenging. 

Simple costume pieces leaned more toward the symbolic rather than the lavish. I can see why the color scheme of the clothing blended so well with the set design: Marina Draghici designed both costumes and set. The muted blues, grays, and greens mixed with some eye popping reds and the brilliant flourishing purple cape of Charles II all made for a lovely palette. I also loved how the costume and wig pieces were intermixed with the scenes: Karl Rove in a ruff collar, George H. W. Bush in Charles I’s foppish wig. Also, hats off to Shane Rettig’s sound design and its execution: syncing tennis lobs to the swing of actor’s racquets is no small feat. 

This tight-knit ensemble gave a masterful performance, and I am kicking myself for not giving them a standing ovation. They so deserved it. 

So why didn’t I stand up? Ladies and gentlemen, the ending was all wrong.

I can see where Ruhl was going and where the idea formed: the divine right of kings and the divine right of political lineage isn’t as far removed as we would like it to be. I also understand why the play had to change as it was being written: I recently read in an interview with Ruhl in the Hartford Courant that the play had been crafted with the assumption that Jeb would win the Republican nomination. That didn’t happen, so the show had to go in another direction. The loss of the more complete parallel between the Stuart and Bush dynasties made the ending sort of bewildering. This play is innovative in its historical remixing, so why create a conventional ending? Now, I suppose a medieval-styled war protest song at the end of a show isn’t necessarily a usual occurrence, but the song’s content was so mundane that it took the wind out of the show’s sails. It made the entire audience immobile so they couldn’t get up out of their seats, even if they wanted to. I even double checked the text to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding. “Damn it! Sarah copped out!” I texted to my friend after the show, who was equally frustrated with the ending. 

Ultimately, do I recommend it? Yes. Come see these marvelous actors who rock the Yale stage: it is engaging and fun, especially if you endured the Dubya era. They deserve to be seen and heard because these are performances that are out of the ordinary in terms of complexity. There is deeper significance in the lines and scenes, but don’t expect it to be a broad, cohesive message. This play might be best suited for those looking for entertainment rather than deep meaning. For me, that was fine, but I’m a shaken-not-stirred kind of gal. 

Photo: T. Ryder Smith, Mary Shultz, Greg Keller, Angel Desai, and Andrew Weems in Scenes from Court Life, or the whipping boy and his prince by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Mark Wing- Davey.

Copyright Carol Rosegg