The combo of didactic medieval drama and modern theater usually ends in disaster. Despite their many poetic attractions, popular works like “Everyman” are absolutist works of Christian evangelism — and they resist creative attempts from well-meaning helmers to liberalize them in the theater. But in Johannes von Saaz’s “Death and the Ploughman,” eloquently translated by Michael West, auteur-director Anne Bogart has found a largely unknown and nicely pliable text from the cusp of the medieval Renaissance that actually probes and questions far more than it sermonizes.
Being from 1401, this is a play about death. Given the dismal life expectancy of the era — and the fatal hazards posed by, say, childbirth — it’s no great surprise. But what is remarkable here is the relevance of its anguished howl against mortality.
In essence, the play consists of a regular old Ploughman who has the effrontery to question why Death has shown up to take his perfectly nice wife. The Ploughman wants Death — depicted by Bogart as a fellow in a suit and a bowler hat — to explain himself, dammit.
The style may jar, but that timeless emotion won’t be unfamiliar to anyone who has ever lost a loved one. “What wrong have we done you?” the bereft Ploughman asks of Death, which is pretty much the same question posed by multitudes of the bereaved to their shrinks, rabbis, ministers and bottles of Jack Daniels.
“Suffering is the end of love, the end of joy is sorrow,” declares Death in reply. “After pleasure comes the loss of pleasure.”
Given that this conversation — in various guises and with various digressions — takes up pretty much all of the 90-minute running time of Bogart’s latest creation with her SITI Company actors, “Death and the Ploughman” is no laugh riot. It’s talky and spare, not so much a play as a long series of arguments. Indeed, what few attempts Bogart makes to instill a grace note or two of humor mainly fall flat.
But if one is up for a 90-minute contemplation of how we cannot change the unassailable fact that we’ll all one day be pushing up daisies, “Death and the Ploughman” is rather beguiling. You could argue that all great plays are fundamentally about kicking the bucket: This one just makes no bones about it.
This text and translation first came to notice in 2003 at London’s Gate Theater, where it was directed by Deborah Bruce. In London, Death was played by three actors. In Bogart’s Classic Stage Company version (which also adds the wife, defunct at 34), he is played by one dude on a mission.
Lord knows, Bogart has a blank physical canvas here. Given the sketchy nature of the dramatic text, one can add or delete characters at will. Not that Bogart lets more finished scripts get in the way of that — she had no problem sticking a Louisville “Miss Julie” inside a wrestling ring.
But the director is at her best when her ideas don’t constantly run up against the various preconceptions of a play. Here, she can work with free rein and a trio of typically intense performances from SITI regulars Will Bond, Ellen Lauren and Stephen Webber. As is her wont, Bogart sticks them on what looks like a kind of volleyball court in front of a faux-medieval backdrop.
Lauren looks much less at ease than the two men — both of whom are superb — but then it’s tricky playing a dead woman who wasn’t intended to be seen or heard. Lauren’s presence does at least let the audience see what the argument is about in more human terms (otherwise the play would be all about a woman we never see, as was the case in London). Show us the nature of the loss and the stakes increase.
For most of this show, accompanied by an intense and oblique soundscape from Darron L. West, you wonder what Bogart is trying to say. Is Death the Christian Right? Halliburton? Fiscal inequality? Or just a man with a tough job?
At the end of the actual von Saaz text (begun one day after the his wife died in childbirth), the poor Ploughman has to be content with his religious bromides. We’re not entirely certain if Bogart intends us to see that as a fait accompli or merely pointless fiddling while Rome burns.