They made something out of nothing. What exactly it was they made out of "Death and the Ploughman," was, at best, unclear. The piece, authored by Johannes von Saaz in 1401 and recently staged in a new translation by the SITI Company of New York, presents core questions surrounding death in a didactic dialogue. The performance oozed with spastic, Martha Graham-inspired movement based on medieval diptychs. Or so the director, Anne Bogart, claims. But nonetheless, they made something out of nothing.
"Death and the Ploughman" played at the Hopkins Center Tuesday and Wednesday nights of this week, and was followed by a pre-performance discussion with Prof. Peter Travis prior to the Wednesday showing.
It all took place on the naked stage of Moore Theater -- no set, no curtains, a single hanging canvas depicting ribbed gothic arches served as a backdrop for the debate between (you guessed it!) death and the ploughman. Three actors, two benches, a small suitcase and an unending avalanche of sound effects filled the space.
The disputatio -- a medieval morality debate probably intended for a readership rather than a theater audience -- dealt with death in a long-winded, pedantic fashion, touching on some tough questions: "My lord death, who art thou?" for example, which prompted the first of three amusing, randomly inappropriate Marx Brothers-style slapstick routines.
The text pays homage to major players in the canon of western literature up the 14th century and employs allusions for the well-read, the university-educated, the philosophically savvy: none other than a slim minority of the population.
It seems wrong to call this piece a play. Indeed, it's a work one would more expected to encounter as a 35-minute reading assignment, rather than on stage. It is a series of arguments and ideas, shrouded in hearty language and perhaps meant to be pondered, discussed and modified.
So what do the actors do? They shout, whisper, dance, writhe; they move with agonizing slow motion as they deliver the dialogue and run, slide, roll, fall, freeze in response to the text.
Ellen Lauren, the added "silent" character, is by far the most compelling speaker, and moves with a refined sense of purpose. Particularly her bench dancing and physical comedy is not to be missed: absolutely compelling! The few lines she was granted make clear that no blocking, gesture, choreography or special effect is needed to give dramatic meaning to a few words.
Similarly, Will Bond is also most striking in his final soliloquy, addressing god. His rendering of the resignation-prayer to accept the loss of his wife is riveting; and moreover, it's not choreographed. Abandoned and alone he holds center stage. Less can be more, even if you start with nothing.