In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the prince’s advice to the players suggests that “the purpose of playing” is “to hold the mirror up to nature,” but we might wonder exactly what “nature” means there. Does it include political matters? Or something more essential?
Today, most of us — audiences, artists, critics — are aware that our “nature” is almost inextricably fused with our politics. Therein lies the purpose behind the arch and suggestive comedy of Sarah Ruhl’s Scenes from Court Life, or the whipping boy and his prince, now in its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, directed by Mark Wing-Davey.
The play closes this Saturday.
Scenes from Court Life aims to get behind the scenes of the lives of the rich and powerful. Ruhl creates a neat, though at times forced, paralleling of the English monarchy — specifically Charles I (T. Ryder Smith) and his son Charles II (Greg Keller) — with the “dynastic” aspects of the American family of George Herbert Walker Bush (Smith), which gave us, to date, a senator, a vice president who became a president, a governor who became a two-term president, and another governor. The parallel takes its best plot point from the fact that Charles I, who was executed, suffered Oliver Cromwell to take power from him and his heirs, while George H.W. Bush was unseated by the upstart Bill Clinton and prevented from a second term. Then, after the respective interregna, Charles II reinstated the Stuart line, and George W. Bush (Keller) served two terms, doing what his father couldn’t.
In the case of the Stuarts, there was no other son with a claim to the throne. In the Bush family, W.’s brother Jeb (Danny Wolohan) could continue the presidential dynasty — an idea that seemed more immediately plausible back when Ruhl’s play was first conceived. The Bush boys’ sibling rivalry is made a recurrent theme, beginning with W. announcing his run for governor of Texas at the same time as Jeb’s already planned run for the same office in Florida. But the more pointed parallel Ruhl chooses to exploit is between Prince Charles and his whipping boy (Wolohan), the servant who must endure the corporal punishment that, court etiquette dictates, cannot be visited upon the royal flesh. For purposes of parallel, poor beleaguered Jeb is his brother’s whipping boy. And indeed, Donald Trump (Jeff Biehl) shows up in the later proceedings — when Jeb is making his bid for the Republican nomination for president — to show that once a whipping boy, always a whipping boy.
Ruhl’s skill at theater-by-analogy keeps things moving nimbly for the most part. Both royals and Bushes like to play tennis, both like to engage in group dances — whether Texas square dance or baroque sarabandes — and Ruhl steers us to see less extrinsic parallels, such as Jeb’s wife Columba (Keren Lugo), born in Mexico, and Charles II’s whipping boy — Barnaby — wooing by proxy Catherine of Braganza (Lugo), a Portuguese princess. The latter storyline, as the main Stuart element of Act II, takes us a bit afield from the Bush business, which is where the play is strongest. Elsewhere comic elements stem from odd congruity. The monarch had a “Groom of the Stool” (Jeff Biehl), tasked with wiping the royal bottom. Meanwhile, W. called Karl Rove (Biehl), his senior advisor, “Turd Blossom.” The scenes playing on this give a whole new slant to the term bathroom humor.
Most of the cast plays a role in both the English court and the American family to considerable effect. In England, Keller and Wolohan play friends distanced by class and position who become blood brothers. In America, Keller and Wolohan play brothers distanced by ambition who are never quite friends. The best scene between the Bush brothers finds them grappling over toys as kids. For Ruhl, the childishness of these two men is never lost sight of, even when one is planning a military invasion and the other plays into Rove’s schemes for W.’s victory in the 2000 election.
The story of the actual prince and his actual whipping boy floats over the U.S. characters the veneer of court, while the Stuart scenes are complicated by their status as dress-up versions of the modern day scenes. At times the conflation produces great theatrical moments, as when Charles I suddenly removes his wig and becomes Bush I learning of his election night defeat, or when Charles II, in W. attire, suffers his own ass to be whipped rather than wiped, for a change. The most rewarding aspect of the play is when we see the prince peeking through W., and vice versa. At such times, Scenes of Court Life suggests a profundity in W. that he never enjoyed in reality.
But never fear, there are also scenes where the former president speaks about his painting with defenseless earnestness, and there’s a speech inspired by his gift for verbal gaffes.
As elder Bush and elder king, T. Ryder Smith is remarkable, playing both roles with studied dignity and subtle obtuseness that goes a long way to making the parallel work on stage. His is a wonderful portrait of the aging former president Bush. Greg Keller gets the walk and manner of W. spot on, though he makes his subject a bit whinier at times than suits W.’s public aw-shucks persona. Danny Wolohan’s Jeb never quite comes into his own, but his Barnaby gains stature as the play goes on, almost at his modern counterpart’s expense. Helpful support comes from Angel Desai as Laura Bush, who tends to break the fourth wall to take us into her confidence, as when she defends her husband’s actions on 9/11 and decries violence against America. Jeff Biehl’s Karl Rove and Groom of the Stool complement each other with a stoical sense of their place in the story.
In Act II the parallels become less rewarding and the two strands of the play begin to chafe somewhat against the forced correspondences. In the end, we’re given a swift conflation in a full-cast song that quips against empire — in which another country can always act as whipping boy for our sins — and beseeches us to rise up and vote. With a deliberately topical rather than satirical conclusion, Ruhl exhorts us that we still have a choice ahead that matters, even while reminding us of our past sins. Thoughtful, a bit precious, and a lot of fun to watch, Scenes of Court Life is anything but escapist theater.