By Robert Hunter; Adapted by S.M. Dale; Directed by Ralph Lewis
Presented by Peculiar Works Project
Off Off Broadway, Play with Music
Runs through 10.29.17
Fraunces Tavern Museum, 54 Pearl Street
by Shani R. Friedman on 10.13.17
Benjamin Strate, Caiti Lattimer, Roy Koshy and Hank Lin in Androboros (Villain of the State). Photo by DLW Photography NYC.
BOTTOM LINE: Just in time for election season in New York, this funny, fast-paced political satire from the eighteenth century fittingly unspools at the historic Fraunces Tavern.
The OG of American plays, Androboros was the first to be published (though likely never performed) on our shores, when there wasn’t yet a country, but merely a collection of colonies. Scotsman-turned-British Army General Robert Hunter presided over New York and New Jersey as governor from 1710 to 1720. When he was brought in, New York had already been subjected to a cavalcade of incompetent leaders, and Hunter had to contend with an aggressively contentious assembly. In a sign of the revolution to come, the assemblymen refused to vote to raise funds for public works or to pay government salaries because, they argued, the monies were being misappropriated.
Of the political gridlock he endured, Hunter wrote in a letter to author Jonathan Swift: “I have spent three years of life in such torment and vexation, that nothing in life can ever make amends for it.” He was inspired to write a satire that took aim at his opponents—which included his lieutenant governor, Francis Nicholson—on the heels of the Vestment Scandal of 1714. In brief, the scandal involved an allegation made by the Reverend William Vesey, the first rector of Trinity Church, that someone had broken in and defiled the vestments and prayer books; Hunter, no fan of Vesey, essentially accused him of making it all up. Written just five months after the scandal, Hunter created a scathing takedown in the style of Elizabethan comedy and Italian commedia dell’arte. With his new adaptation, S.M. Dale has added modern flourishes, including ten original songs. The show is performed at the Fraunces Tavern Museum on Pearl Street, a colonial landmark.
The historical events are introduced by the Teller (Trav S.D.) who periodically appears to provide context and clarity amid the on-stage antics, while Governor Hunter himself is embodied by the Keeper (Iftiaz Haroon). The insurrection is led by the Speaker (Benjamin Strate), Mulligrub (Hank Lin), Doodlesack (Bianca Ilich) and Coxcomb (Roy Koshy). They plot to have a clownish outsider, Androboros (Matt Roper)—a stand-in for Lieutenant Governor Nicholson—take control. Fun fact I learned afterward: in corrupted Greek, Androboros means “man-eater,” which explains why Aesop (Caiti Lattimer), one of the Keeper’s supporters, breaks into the Hall & Oates song.
Androboros is assisted by the clergy: Fizle, a.k.a. Vesey (Oliver Burns), and Flip (Zoe Raphael). Besides Aesop, the Keeper also has Tom (Oscar Castillo) who is his spy to all of the backroom misdeeds. Along with Solemn (Kendra Augustin), who pretends to be a fortune teller of sorts, they concoct a plan to outwit Androboros and the Keeper’s enemies. Dale does a great job of making a 300-year-old farce feel almost too on the nose given the unreality we’re currently living in. (At one point Androboros scrunches up his face in that constipated way the current President has as he walks off making the victory sign.) The adaptation never feels stodgy, but that’s not to say that initially, given the large cast, the rapid-fire dialogue, and the brisk staging that I wasn’t a little confused as to who was who and doing what. Another pass at the dialogue or reducing the size of the assembly would have been beneficial.
At the helm, Ralph Lewis keeps all of the moving parts working well amid the twists and turns. The cast, leaping about the Tavern's Flag Gallery, are game for all of the physical comedy, as well as the singing and dancing. Roper is terrific as Androboros, channeling pathos as well as buffoonery: he actually made me feel bad for how Androboros was being abused, even though he had it coming. Castillo is also fun to watch, bringing a note of glee to Tom’s shenanigans. The standout from the assembly is Lattimer, whose Aesop constantly wants to perform stories and songs, to the increasing chagrin of her colleagues. Her witty tunes include “Idle Bees a Buzzin’” and “Pizza Rats and Bodega Cats.”
Whether you’re a political junkie, love a cutting satire set to music, or have never been to Fraunces Tavern, Androboros is a clever romp through history told with fresh eyes, influenced by current events, in a legendary space.
(Androboros plays at Fraunces Tavern Museum, 54 Pearl Street, through October 29. The running time is 80 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 7. Tickets are $20, $15 for museum members, seniors & students, and are available at frauncestavernmuseum.org or by calling 212-425-1778.)
Androboros (Villain of the State) is by Robert Hunter, adapted by S.M. Dale with additional text by Peter Davis. Directed by Ralph Lewis. Choreography by Diana Byrne. Costumes by Cathy Small. Lighting by David Castaneda. Projections by Blue Bliss. Artwork by Ward Sutton. Dramaturgy by Barbara Yoshida. Original Music by Spencer Katzman. Stage Management by Amy Marin and Yasmin Schancer.
The cast is Kendra Augustin, Oliver Burns, Oscar Castillo, Iftiaz Haroon, Bianca Ilich, Roy Koshy, Caiti Lattimer, Hank Lin, Zoe Raphael, Matt Roper, Trav S.D. and Benjamin Strate. Keyboards by Maria Dessena. Percussion by Rob Mitzner.