The Birth of Merlin (Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble) @ The Blackfriars Playhouse

Never has a side-eye side-eyed more side-eydily than the side-eye of George Durfee’s Toclio. Amid a court of international intrigue, royal marriages, internecine conflicts, and warring magicians, the smooth Toclio – whose sudden appearance at one point caused the Briton nobles to jump in shock, and who was often the only representative of the Britons in a court increasingly populated by the red-clothed Saxons – offered a sarcastic gloss on shenanigans. The repeated, and pointed, raised eyebrows to the on-stage gallants communicated a solidarity-forming ‘What the hell is going on?’ and a reassuring ‘Don’t take this too seriously?’, a gesture in keeping with the ethos of surprise engendered by the process of Staunton’s ‘Ren Shows’. Yet Toclio’s wry commentary belied the surprising sincerity of a production which found surprising heart in a play whose title is The Birth of Merlin, but whose subtitle – the more emotive The Child Hath Found His Father, repeated prominently by dramaturg Keith Taylor and actor Andrew Steven Knight in the pre-show announcements – offered an emotional guiding light.

The Ren Show process, used by the American Shakespeare Center and borrowed by the Mary Baldwin Shakespeare & Performance MFA company for their final show of each year, is an attempt to recapture something of early modern rehearsal techniques, using cue-scripts and working without a director over a very limited period. The practice often results in productions with less obvious aesthetic or interpretive unity than those with a director/designer team, but with a more committed investment in individual characters, rehearsed in relative isolation without worrying about their place in the hierarchy of the play. William Rowley’s multi-stranded The Birth of Merlin is an ideal play to explore through this process, partly because of its genuinely shocking twists, and partly because its several plots all fight for stage time. One of the joys of Madison Mayberry’s scheming Artesia, the Saxon queen who sought to conquer her people’s enemy, King Aurelius (Chase Fowler) by seducing him, was her massive main-character energy; cackling and writhing when captured and sentenced at the play’s end, Artesia reveled in her defiance, in ways that were proportionate to her character and intent even though this was only one of a half-dozen plot-lines in operation that militated against any one villain. Such committed choices worked to sell each character, each scene, on its own terms, auteurism be damned (even as stage manager Cole Metz presumably worked overtime backstage to keep the busy play on track).

This local focus also worked to find surprising nuances in a story which more cohesive interpretations might flatten out. Much of the scholarly work on the play notes the recurrent misogyny to which women are subjected across the various storylines: the scheming Queen Artesia who tears apart brothers and allies when she inveigles herself into the Briton court; the writing-out of sisters Modestia and Constantia from their inheritance when they choose to defy their father Donobert to pursue a convent life; and most obviously, the heavily pregnant Joan Go-to’t, wandering the woods looking for the man who she slept with, and discovering it was the Devil. In Treehouse’s production, the word ‘whore’ rang out a number of times, the recourse to misogynistic verbal violence a mark of a society where quick judgements were made and men repeatedly reinforced the power they wielded. And yet, the attention to individual circumstances and the insistence on treating all (well, most) of the characters as humans, served to both contextualise and mitigate the misogyny in ways that felt surprisingly hopeful.

The misogyny was most easily countered in the story of Modestia (Beth Somerville) and Constantia (Madison Rudolph). Their father, Donobert (Katelyn Spurgin) was a doddering old man, backed up by the stick-wielding Gloster (Rosemary Richards), father of Edwin (Kelsey Harrison), suitor to Modestia. The men of this storyline were the backbone of the Briton court; in the political plot, King Aurelius used Donobert’s age as an insulting pretext to ignore his sage counsel, but the wisdom of the elders and the dynamic gallantry of the younger generation, Edwin and Cador (Beth Harris) combined to create the moral and virile fortitude that could stand against the conniving Saxons. In the marriage plot, however, all of these characters were grossly out of their element. Edwin, at least, was a charismatic wooer, who might have even been successful were Modestia at all interested in marriage; Cador, however, was comically mismatched with a flustered Constantia, throwing himself on the floor and flourishing in a performance of gallant love-making. Coupled with Donobert and Gloster’s impotent blustering, often descending into wordless muttering at the edges of the stage at the challenges to their authority, the men of this plot were hopelessly inadequate to the task.

This inadequacy allowed Somerville and Rudolph to develop a meaningful bond between the sisters. As they shied away from their suitors, they looked for connection with one another, Constantia’s eyes in particular reaching out desperately as she was backed into the side of the stage by the over-enthusiastic Cador. From the very opening of the play, the men were working to separate the sisters and distribute them to marital partners; the sisters clung to one another when possible, and reached out with hands and eyes when not. The more confident Modestia was under no illusions about the impact her disruption of social norms was causing, and the pleas in her voice smacked of a genuine desire to be understood rather than to upset. Her strength then enabled Constantia to break away. When defying her sister while standing ready to be married, Constantia was clearly under instruction – she looked at Donobert for assurance, and Donobert nodded pointedly and approvingly back. But Modestia’s commitment to her independence was much more persuasive than the quavering of the old men, and as Constantia joined Modestia, the exaggerated shocked gasps of the fathers and suitors made a justifiable mockery of them – consolidated by the overjoyed reactions of the two officiating bishops (Kailey Potter and Dylan Mabe) who refused to help the performatively heartbroken Cador.

Women easily won out in this plot; there was little mitigating the evil woman of the main political plot, though, even if a majority female-identifying cast somewhat dulled the visual impact of a court of men rounding on an isolated vindictive woman. From the moment Mayberry’s Artesia swooped into Aurelius’s court, she reorganised the space – even clicking a finger for her three attendants to form a human chair for her that unbalanced the central position of Aurelius’s chair and established her as a new locus for the scene. Moving in wide arc around the stage, Artesia created space for herself and captivated Aurelius, who leaned towards members of the audience to confide his rapture, even as Donobert threw his arms open and implored the other courtiers to see what he saw. Artesia’s surety of purpose left the courtiers flummoxed and disorganized, and allowed her to take control of the stage. By the time Aurelius was later asking why the court was so dull, he had already surrounded himself entirely with Artesia’s Saxon family and allies (Petra Shearer’s Ostorius, Rudolph’s Octa, and Ariel Tatum’s Proximus among them) that only an ever-snarky Toclio was present to provide counter-balance – and Toclio was clearly a courtier who’d never enjoyed a good party.

The only person who had authority to stand up against Artesia seemed to be the Hermit (Potter in a hilarious grey beard and brown habit). The Hermit moved purposefully about the stage, crossing himself and refusing to be shifted by Artesia’s machinations. Early on, Proximus – the Saxon wizard – aimed to prove his power with a pageant, bringing in Hector and Achilles (Harris and Spurgin) to perform a slow-motion duel for Aurelius’s pleasure; the Hermit simply crossed into the middle of the battle and made a gesture to send the spirits scurrying away, resulting in one of the best laughs of the night as Tatum’s Proximus initially tried to conjure the spirits back again and then, crestfallen, went over to the Saxons with tears and a heartfelt I-just-can’t-even pantomime. The Hermit stood as a defiant moral compass in the production’s first half, reassuring and empowering Modestia and standing up for the court against Artesia and the Saxons, paving the way for the greater magician who would follow him.

The Hermit’s disappearance from the play, however, marked the dissolution of the court as rebellion began. The powerful entrance of Rachel Louis’s Edol of Chester gave the nobles a masculine figure to rally behind (fascinatingly, in a nice bit of repertory ghosting, Edol’s stage-right entrance precisely mirrored that of Rosemary Richards’s Queen Isabella in the company’s concurrent Edward II, another moment in which a rallying figure had galvanised a group of bickering nobles), but almost immediately the violent masculine energies became self-directed, Edol and Edwin drawing swords on one another as Edol’s impolitic fury nearly derailed the possibility of cooperation. And Jordan Willis’s Uther wasn’t an enormous help, at least at first. Uther first appeared in the comic plot, wandering the woods and drinking from a beer can as he sought the woman he had fallen in love with; when he returned to court and recognized Artesia, newly engaged to his brother Aurelius (one of the greatest twists in early modern drama), the fecklessness of the prodigal prince initially led to uncertainty, especially as he prepared a ring to propose to Artesia before learning, with shock, of the engagement. Uther’s attempts to go it alone, liaising first with Harris’s playful, manipulative Gentlewoman and then with Artesia herself, separating him even further from the courtiers who were his natural allies and from his brother, who now appeared aloft in the gallery. It took the entire play until the men seemed to be united enough to finally defeat Artesia, and while the misogynistic insults hurled at her suggested a win for manhood over this evil woman, Artesia’s triumph in the chaos she had caused – including the death of Aurelius and plenty of Britons in the interim – left the Britons’ victory at least partly hollow.

The third plot, however, was the one where the company found perhaps the most surprising innovations in reimagining the poor treatment of women, in a choice encapsulated during the interval music. ‘You and me and the Devil makes three’ goes the old folk song about single parenthood, though the writers of ‘Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby’ presumably never anticipated a situation in which the Devil would be the actual parent of said baby. In Treehouse’s rendition of the song, performed at the end of the interval, Joan Go-to’t (Kara Hankard) and the Devil (Mabe) sat together downstage. Accompanied by several other seated members of the ensemble, they reimagined the song as one of a father who has returned, rather than a mother who has left, the community seeming to embrace this unconventional family. The surprise underpinning this staging of the song was that the Devil and Joan might actually, almost, in other circumstances, make up a happy family.

The production didn’t shy away from the misogyny meted out on Joan. Cameron Taylor’s acidic Clown was attached to his sister but kept up a relentless barrage of criticism and despair over her wide-eyed, sincere attempts to work out who her father was. The pregnant belly worn by Hankard grew throughout the first half to beach-ball-size proportions, and Joan’s essential innocence kept her a winsome figure, even as the Clown showed a shrewder side in trying to manipulate the various potential fathers who crossed their path. These victims included: a shocked Uther (who showed the two no patience); a hilariously arch Toclio (his bathetic ‘Oh, she’s fallen’ when she fainted in front of him was followed by him walking over to pick up Uther’s abandoned beer can before leaving the Clown to deal with Joan); and Anna Taylor Goodmansen’s hilariously effete Sir Nicodemus Nothing, whose gesture to the ‘nothing’ that prevented him from claiming fatherhood of Joan’s child was accompanied by the removal of his cap to reveal Goodmansen’s long curly hair, in a moment that fascinatingly queered the gender essentialism implicit in the Clown’s quest for the unborn child’s begetter. But by playing these scenes as fundamentally sympathetic to Joan’s plight, it was the indifference (and often misogyny) of the men they encountered that was critiqued.

To this end, the production’s sympathy for the Devil was one of the production’s most revelatory discoveries. With rimmed hat, colorful clothes, and a kindly lilt in his voice, the Devil appeared on the gallery to wistfully look down on Joan, noting their unequal statuses. But his desperation to see Merlin born safely led to an ongoing affection for Joan, with whom he stood later in the second half following her delivery, as if entertaining the idea of being a father. The production’s first half closed with a spectacular sequence in which the Devil emerged from a discovery space behind which Joan could be heard screaming in childbirth – he worked desperately to conjure, summoning up spirits to aid in the delivery. Richards, Rudolph, and Harrison emerged as Hecate and her aides, dancing and wheeling about the stage while the rest of the company appeared to play and sing an eerie, powerful, roots-infused incantation (Goodmansen absolutely belted the wails), the whole evoking a Southern Gothic vibe as the spirits sucked something from the Devil and left him exhausted and spent on the stage. This choreographed spectacle – one of a few moments chosen within the Ren process for significance – made for a strong close to the first half, but also showed the Devil’s care and work in bringing his child into the world, a little chime of ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’ heard as the discovery space curtains closed on him.

And then, in a show-stopping entrance, the Child was found as, at the top of the second half, Knight emerged, naked apart from a massive nappy, but with an enormous head of grey hair and beard, reading a book. At this point, Cameron Taylor’s Knight became all of us, standing gobsmacked and disbelieving at the man-baby over whom Joan (and later the Devil) doted. The belated appearance of Merlin is a structural anomaly of the play, but the immediate impression that Knight made was a game-changer. This smiling, confident Merlin was on an accelerated learning curve, symbolized in the juggling balls that have been a feature of several of Knight’s performances over Treehouse’s year. Merlin picked up the balls one at a time and taught himself to juggle over the course of a single scene while the Clown tried to get his head around the situation. By the time Merlin (now robed, thankfully) was put into competition with Proximus, the juggling balls had become his weapon of choice – he tossed one into the gallery while warning Proximus of his imminent death; Proximus walked to the side of the stage and let out a large artificial ‘ha!’; and then Merlin’s attendant spirit (Rudolph) dropped the ball from the balcony, laying out Proximus dead and causing fits of vomiting and panic from the shocked Saxons.

What was the significance of the birth of Merlin? In many ways, Merlin served to reorient the play following its descent into chaos, his confidence and clear-sighted prophecy creating order and unity. He supplanted both the Hermit and Proximus (the latter violently), and was the authoring figure behind the second half’s moments of spectacle, including the quite splendid clash between a white and red dragon (each manipulated by three company members) which he choreographed for Richards’s dumbstruck Vortiger, and the final pageant revealing the future King Arthur, a bittersweet image of future death and Uther’s replacement. As a straight replacement for the Hermit, Merlin had similar energy in destabilizing the hierarchies of the stage, but with the same visual flair in creating spirits as Proximus. In combining the Christian and the Pagan, therefore, this Merlin represented the only force powerful enough to reshape Britain itself.

More personal and more radical as a dramaturgical choice, though, was Merlin’s rescue of his mother. Infamously, The Birth of Merlin punishes Joan for her liaison with the Devil, Merlin imprisoning her in Stonehenge as penance. Here, this was cut, and Merlin instead became the rescuer of the woman condemned by so many others in misogynistic language. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the Devil should have a heel turn, but with Merlin born, the Devil’s ongoing pursuit of Joan finally shook her, and the innocence shown hitherto in Hankard’s performance became fear as the Devil slowly followed her across the stage and then, angry at her refusal of him, summoned a spirit (Somerville) who magically pinned Hankard to a wall. Merlin’s entrance had him banish that spirit, rescue his mother, and defeat the Devil, who was cast out through the discovery space, leaving Merlin to embrace Joan; the Child had found his mother.

In this moment, with a shrewd cut and attention to individual character, Treehouse’s actor-led process found a surprising solution to a play whose misogyny can be overwhelming. By allowing an innocent Joan to stay rescued – and indeed for her rescue and Merlin’s respect for her to be the production’s emotional climax – alongside the ridiculing of the men who tried to stand in the way of Modestia and Constantia’s self-determination, and allowing Artesia the celebration of just how much it had taken to defeat her, the production repeatedly found ways to suggest that women couldn’t be merely contained or suppressed in this men’s world. For all of the Clown’s snark, the production found merit in his comic silencing by Merlin; for all of the Bishops’ giggling, the company found sober purpose in the commitment to modesty; and for all of Toclio’s sarcastic eyebrow-raising, Treehouse took a silly play, wrung every laugh out of it, and yet found unity in disarming sincerity. It’s a fine outcome for a play that, as this production proved, deserves to be taken seriously.

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