In 1665 the purported first English-language play performed in the American colonies, “Ye Bare and Ye Cubb,” took veiled aim at mother country Britain’s punitive trade laws, getting its participants accused (then acquitted) of treason. Recalling Timberlake Wertenbaker’s “Our Country’s Good,” playwright-helmer Mark Jackson’s semi-musical premiere at Shotgun mixes historical fact with fiction and meta-theater to probe repression and freedom of expression on several frontiers, from religious hypocrisy and early revolutionist stirrings to the conventions and liberations of theater itself.
While it could use a little tightening, “God’s Plot” is one homegrown Shotgun hit that might well take root in other venues.
Living under an assumed name after fleeing indentured servitude — his reward for being an actor in Cromwell’s joyless England — William Darby aka George Derby (Carl Holvick-Thomas) lands in Virginia settlement Pungoteague, surviving as a scrivener and tutor. While residents came here largely in pursuit of freedom, they nevertheless hew to a strict code of acceptable behavior marked by public displays of religious devotion.
Itching to break that mould is local judge’s daughter Tryal Pore (Juliana Lustenader), a questioning, impudent spirit who likes her teacher very much. He returns that sentiment, though for various reasons insists they keep their attraction secret.
That leaves her impatient enough to entertain other suitors, like upstanding carpenter Daniel Prichard (an ingratiating Joe Salazar).
Meanwhile, the unfair trade laws imposed by the Crown enrich London sellers while impoverishing goods-providing colonists.
Sympathizing with a bankrupted tobacco grower, William writes a satirical play in which a mother bear greedily refuses to share honey with its cub. Performed in the local tavern, this sketch is a hit but it also roils local malcontent Edward Martin (John Mercer), a secret Quaker particularly offended that this secular entertainment was performed on the Sabbath.
Ideally situated in the former church that is Shotgun’s home, “God’s Plot” is a complex yet seemingly effortless hybrid. Nods to Shakespeare, pokes at theatrical process (and vanity) comfortably mingle with critiques of Puritan society and allusions to today’s moral conundrums. It’s a largely comic evening of serious ideas, one whose Greek chorus of sorts is a series of appealing songs in an Appalachian/Weill vein mode by Daveen DiGiacomo. They’re brightly, and solely, sung by Lustenader as internal monologues defining Tryal as the play’s true provocateur, conscience, and voice of progressive modernism. Travis Kindred’s upright bass and Josh Pollack’s banjo provide her onstage backing as well as underscoring elsewhere.
As assured and resourceful an interpreter of his text as Jackson is, pacing could be a tad swifter overall, and a series of epilogues end matters on an entertaining but attenuated note. Minor caveats aside, however, this crisply staged “Plot” is an adventuresome delight.