Death and the Ploughman
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 10, 2006
Unless you saw Anne Bogart's adaptation at Classic Stage Company two years ago, chances are that, like me, you've not seen Death and the Ploughman in a theatre. Or heard it, or read it: this famous German prose poem, dating from 1400, is one of those works that people are more likely to know about than to actually know first-hand.
So one of the most valuable things about Peter S. Case's new dramatization of Death and the Ploughman, now at La MaMa, is that it puts this work in front of an audience. It's a piece of literature absolutely worth the contemplation. In it, a young woman dies, and her husband (who says he's a ploughman who works with a pen) essentially sues Death for ending her life prematurely and bringing him such grief. The play takes the form of a debate, or a trial; although in the final moments an angelic representative of God will descend to make judgment, I think Case is hoping to present the arguments to us in the audience, to give us a chance to weigh them and make a decision about them for ourselves.
The Ploughman, speaking for humanity, talks of loss and sadness and unborn children and unaccomplished good; anyone who's ever experienced the death of a loved one will understand exactly where he's coming from. Death's point of view is mightily persuasive, however, offering the perspectives of balance; of a natural order where all things are born, live, and die; of the foolish hubris people have in thinking they're entitled to whatever they want (such as immortality for those they cherish).
It's useful philosophy even today; I imagine it was pretty potent stuff in the 14th century.
Case's production features Rob Howard as the Ploughman and four actors as Death—a man (Rob Yang), a woman who often dances and plays the violin (Storm Garner; the compositions are her own), a little girl (Bridget Clark), and a woman who also plays the Ploughman's Wife (Elli Stefanidi). The use of the quartet to portray Death is an interesting and often very successful device, especially when Death illustrates its case with a parable or two. Overall, Case's staging incorporates a great deal of movement, much of which is quite lovely and well-executed. Some of the speeches are delivered only with gestures, however, which came across as overly simplistic.
The set, designed by Case, is spare and beautiful: a few barren tree trunks, reaching up into infinity, surrounding a stark white coffin.
This is, as far as I can discern from the program, Case's first attempt as adaptor-director. Not everything here works, but the show is a generally promising debut.