PAWTUCKET, R.I. — A medieval whodunit solved by a troupe of actors becomes a thrilling theatrical adventure in the Gamm Theatre’s world premiere of “Morality Play.”
Based on the 1995 historical novel by the late British writer Barry Unsworth, the Gamm’s fast-paced production benefits from the passion of the adapter, Gamm’s artistic director Tony Estrella, and the creative direction of Tyler Dobrowsky.
Set in the year 1361, Unsworth’s novel follows a ragged band of itinerant actors who are down on their luck, having lost members and audiences to the Black Plague and the rising popularity of spectacular Bible stories produced by tradesmen’s guilds. The book unfolds through the eyes and narration of Nicholas Barber, a young monk who has run away from the religious life (and a married woman) and joined the players.
While Barber (Jesse Hinson) is still a critical character in the dramatic adaptation, the play also makes use of Master Player Martin Bell (Estrella) as an important catalyst for the action. When Bell is inspired to improvise a play around the murder of a 12-year-old boy and the young mute woman who has been convicted of the killing, his determination to solve the crime complicates the situation for everyone. Each member of the company does some detective work as a way to help create their characters, and in doing so uncovers the sordid truth about the murder mystery. Making a play of “a true thing” is a completely new idea and feels like heresy to actors used to re-enacting morality tales from the Bible, but also offers the opportunity to build on their improvisational skills, and for the audience to witness the way in which theater can hold up a mirror to life.
Estrella’s play keeps the dramatic tension high, even when some of the details of the plot and the roles of various townspeople become a bit confusing. But the essential elements, particularly the individual players and the way they work as a team on stage, are crystal clear. In addition to Barber and Bell, five other actors play the members of the acting company, including Steve Kidd, as the oft-drunk Stephen; Jed Hancock Brainerd as Straw; Normand Beauregard as the veteran Tobias; Casey Seymour Kim as Bell’s sister Margaret; and Elliot Peters as young Springer. Each of the actors creates distinctive idiosyncrasies for their characters so that it’s easy to see why they are assigned particular roles. The way in which the players combine a “dumb show,” elaborate movement and gestures, masks and simple rhymed verses to put the facts of the murder case together is both entertaining and illuminating.
Nine additional ensemble members take on all the other characters in this sprawling drama that manages to juxtapose morality and justice, explore the power of theater to expose wrongdoing and comment on the invulnerability of the rich and powerful.
Although 650 years have passed since the action of this fictional drama, Dobrowsky immerses the audience in the feel of 14th-century England. Michael McGarty’s simple, spare set includes a series of platforms, but for the most part, it is Dobrowsky’s choice to seat the audience all around the action and position the actors in the aisles, on the stairs, clambering up to the balcony and back down again, that helps to give this play its feeling of urgency.
The one-two punch of adapter Estrella and director Dobrowsky make the Gamm’s “Morality Play” an enjoyably suspenseful evening of theater.