You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Death and the Ploughman

The combo of didactic medieval drama and modern theater usually ends in disaster. But in Johannes von Saaz's "Death and the Ploughman," translated by Michael West, auteur-director Anne Bogart has found a largely unknown and nicely pliable text from the cusp of the Renaissance that actually probes and questions far more than it sermonizes.

Ploughman - Will Bond Woman - Ellen Lauren Death - Stephen Webber

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.”

No kidding.

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.

Death and the Ploughman

Classic Stage Company; 180 seats; $50 top

Production: A Classic Stage Company presentation of a play in one act by Johannes von Saaz, translated by Michael West. Directed by Anne Bogart.

Creative: Sets and costumes, James Schuette; lighting, Brian H. Scott; sound, Darron L. West; production stage manager, Elizabeth Moreua. Reviewed Nov. 9, 2004; opened Nov. 10. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast: Ploughman - Will Bond Woman - Ellen Lauren Death - Stephen Webber

More Legit

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Kaye Ballard, Star of 'The Mothers-in-Law,' Dies at 93

    Singer-comedienne Kaye Ballard, who starred alongside Eve Arden in the 1960s sitcom “The Mothers-in-Law” and was among the stars of the 1976 feature based on Terrence McNally’s farce “The Ritz,” died Monday in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She was 93. She had recently attended a screening of a documentary about her life, “Kaye Ballard: The Show [...]

  • CAROL CHANNING HERSCHFELD. Actress Carol Channing

    Remembering Carol Channing: A Master of Channeling the Power of Personality

    There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators. Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda Among Celebrities Remembering Carol Channing

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernadette Peters are among the slew of celebrities taking to Twitter to pay tribute to late singer, comedienne and actress Carol Channing. Known for her starring roles in Broadway’s “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” the legend of the stage and screen died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, [...]

  • What the Constitution Means to Me

    Listen: How Things Got Scary in 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    For a decade, writer-performer Heidi Schreck had wanted to write a play inspired by her experiences as a teen debater. But over the years the show started to develop into something both urgently political and deeply personal — and things got scary. In the Broadway-bound “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck reimagines her speech-and-debate [...]

  • Carol Channing Dead

    Carol Channing, Star of Broadway's 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Dies at 97

    Larger-than-life musical stage personality Carol Channing, who immortalized the characters of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!,” has died. She was 97. Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Her publicist B. Harlan Boll confirmed the news. He wrote, “It is with [...]

  • 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    'What the Constitution Means to Me' Transfers to Broadway

    “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a buzzy Off-Broadway production that counts Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem among its fans, is making the move uptown. The play will come to Broadway this spring for a 12-week limited run at the Helen Hayes Theater. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is one part civics lesson, one [...]

  • Choir Boy review

    Broadway Review: 'Choir Boy'

    Honestly, I was afraid that “Choir Boy” — the sweetly exuberant account of a gifted prep school boy’s coming of age, written by “Moonlight” Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney — would be swallowed up in a Broadway house, after winning us over in an Off Broadway staging in 2013.  But aside from the odd set [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content