nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 10, 2006
Two different medieval British chroniclers, William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall, tell the same strange tale of an event that occurred in the Suffolk town of St. Mary Woolpit in a time of civil war. During the harvest, two strange children, with green skin and speaking an alien language, suddenly appeared out of an ancient pit. Taken in by a local soldier, they gradually learned to speak English, learned to eat bread and meat and other English foodstuffs, and lost the green color to their skin. When asked of their origins, they would reply, “We are people of the land of Saint Martin.”
From the ten mysterious paragraphs of history that tell this story, playwright Glyn Maxwell has crafted a strange and unsettling play, both a realistic history play and an eerie folk tale.
The play’s four acts each represent a season in St. Mary Woolpit, beginning in summer, with a collection of village peasants working in the fields, supervised by the local reeve, Whityard: Tom Parch, always looking for a way out of work; Ned and Sara Staner, a recently married couple whose union is already beginning to show cracks; and Bethan Coley, the town belle. The first section works a little too hard, I think, at establishing the relationships among these people and the historical setting, but the play rapidly picks up energy and intrigue once the green children appear out of the wolfpit. Nicole Raphael as the Green Girl and Margo Passalaqua as the Green Boy seem remarkably alien in every way—covered in green body paint, babbling in an incomprehensible tongue, moving sinuously and intertwining their bodies in a way that makes them seem almost like one creature with far too many limbs.
The town splits rapidly in its reactions to the children, with everyone seeing an angle for him- or herself. Tom Parch thinks there’s money to be made, and the not-very-bright Ned Staner is willing to go along. Ned’s wife, Sara, sees the chance to ingratiate herself with Master Richard Calne, the local property owner and sometime soldier (though no one’s entirely sure which side he’s fighting on), by offering herself as teacher and nursemaid to the children. And both Calne and Whityard find themselves uneasily fascinated by the girl, seeing her as both an angel and a forbidden object of lust who works her way into their dreams.
These tensions continue to work themselves out throughout the play, as the girl (named Adela by Richard Calne) slowly begins to adapt, losing the green color of her skin and learning to speak English. Her brother, now named John, remains far more alien, refusing all food but fresh beans, rejecting all English words except “stone,” and remaining wary of the villagers. Calne has the children baptized and then is ordered by Deazil, the local parson, to keep them hidden away, out of sight of any other representatives of the Church. The complicated interweaving of lust, greed, and religion comes to a head on New Year’s Eve, when Parch’s latest money-making scheme requires prostituting an unwitting Adela.
Maxwell is most astute in his portrayal of the gender issues and relationships in this milieu, touching on rape, prostitution, uneasy marriage, unfulfilled lust and sexual jealousy, the entwining of money and sex, and the age-old virgin/whore dichotomy, without ever seeming didactic. He is aided in this by a mesmerizing performance by Nicole Raphael as Adela, who simultaneously conveys the evolution of Adela into an ordinary English housemaid and her inherent otherworldliness; she remains always both angel and demon, child and woman, normal and alien. And because she is never quite one thing or the other, the audience is also constantly unsettled in a provocative way—horrified by Calne’s obvious attraction to this little girl, but also seeing the sexuality in her; angry when this innocent is mistreated but also seeing a cool calculation in her.
The production overall is solid but not outstanding; I found Robert Hupp’s staging a little flat and some of the performances tend toward melodrama. In addition to Raphael, excellent work is done by Craig Smith, who gives Parch the wry humor of a Shakespearean clown. But the most striking aspect of the play is the Green Girl; it is her inherent strangeness, her refreshing ambiguity, that keep the play lingering in my mind.