Review: ‘Silence’

Setting a study of gender fluidity in Viking-beset Britain over one thousand years ago sounds like Monty Python sketch fodder, but it's a conceit Moira Buffini pulls off with considerable panache in "Silence." Magic preem strongly recalls "Cloud 9"-era Caryl Churchill in its mix of historical fantasia, sexual politics and contempo wit.

Setting a study of gender fluidity in Viking-beset Britain over one thousand years ago sounds like Monty Python sketch fodder, but it’s a conceit Moira Buffini pulls off with considerable panache in “Silence.” Magic preem, which opened concurrently under National Theater auspices in London, strongly recalls “Cloud 9”-era Caryl Churchill in its mix of historical fantasia, sexual politics and contempo wit. If the sheer volume of ideas explored here sometimes overwhelms an already complex narrative, this play of ideas nonetheless proves consistently inventive and stimulating.

Playing very loose with the known facts, Buffini has hatched a picaresque epic equally redolent of medieval war sagas, “Lion in Winter”-style camp court intrigue, Shakespearean cross-dress romantic comedy and subversive feminist critique.

At times, the cinematic story arc does push theatrical resources to the brink, and Barbara Damashek’s generally razor-sharp Magic production can’t always avoid high-energy overkill in an effort to keep up. If anything, “Silence” suffers from an excess of delights — a problem one would gladly endure more often.

Set near the millennium before last, it finds French princess Ymma (Nina Gold) traveling from Normandy to Canterbury. She’s been given away in marriage by a ruling brother eager to be rid of her, and is complaining every step of the way.Furious over her exile to this “vast bogland in the freezing north,” Ymma grows more enraged still upon discovering husband-to-be Silence of Cumbria (Rachel Black) is just 14 years old. The wedding night, however, brings a big surprise for both haughty bride and skittish groom: Latter, it turns out, is in fact a girl, his/her sex identity and education having been fudged since birth for lack of a male Cumbrian heir.

But ambitious Ymma, who herself laments, “I should have been born a man,” spies opportunity in this bizarre secret. The two uneasily agree to maintain the ruse, which will liberate them both from the third-class-property status granted womankind’s “meager souls.”

Narrative becomes more hectic and glib in the second act, as a wide variety of themes — religious faith, gender/social roles, sexual preference and repression, pagan spirituality, rape, incest — are further investigated or introduced. Tangled romantic yearnings point in inconvenient directions, with drag-king Silence attracted to ultramacho Eadric, who’s carrying a torch for Ymma.

All cumulative tensions explode under the psychedelic influence of “mystic mushrooms” — a hilarious if all-too-convenient development. Text isn’t spent even then, piling yet more baroque twists of fate onto a teetering deck of cards until somehow they fall into a whimsically just, if improbable, alignment. Damashek’s performers could scarcely be better, as each balances a near-farcial character surface against knottier psychological shadings.

Highly schematic, “Silence” is in the end perhaps more a clever play than a great one. But if its juggling of multiple tones and agendas isn’t quite on the level of similar high-concept efforts by Churchill, Kushner and Stoppard, Buffini surely earns such heady comparisons.

Silence

Magic Theater, San Francisco; 160 Seats; $30 Top

Production

A Magic Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Moira Buffini. Directed by Barbara Damashek.

Creative

Set, Darcy Scanlin; costumes, Fumiko Bielefeldt; lighting, York Kennedy; sound, David Molina; dialect coach, Deb Sussell; fight director, Greg Hoffman; production manager, Scott Paul Cannon. Artistic director, Larry Eilenberg. Opened April 20, 2001. Reviewed May 18. Running time: 2 HOURS, 40 MIN.

Cast

Silence - Rachel Black Ymma - Nina Gold Agnes - Delia MacDougall Roger - Alex Moggridge Eadric - Craig Neibaur Ethelred - Liam Vincent
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