Cornbury: The Queen's Governor
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 26, 2009
The great American traditions of tolerance and liberty and individualism have always nestled uncomfortably alongside the equally hallowed traditions of intolerance and inequality and conformity, and the Sean Bell case and Proposition 8 are signposts telling us that though we've come a long way since colonial times, we still have a way to go. Cornbury: The Queen's Governor, by William M. Hoffman and the late Anthony Holland, is a smart and savvy blend of satire, camp, and alternative history that reminds us that one man's huddled masses yearning to breathe free are another man's oppressor. Written more than 30 years ago as a sort of Queer/Ridiculous bicentennial present to American theatre, Cornbury may not have quite the subversive bite that it once did but remains potent and relevant just the same. Theatre Askew does a bang-up job presenting it in its delayed world premiere.
The title character is an actual historical personage: Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, was cousin to Queen Anne and served as governor of New York from 1701 to 1708. He is best known for the (unsubstantiated) rumor that he paraded about the streets of olde Manhattan in feminine finery; there's a portrait of him in the collection of the New York Historical Society that shows him all dolled up (the painter's name is not known).
Hoffman and Holland use this alleged propensity for cross-dressing as a takeoff point for a sort of fantasia on Cornbury and his circle, who—they posit—include a sexy French wife, an African princess who is now the family's slave, and a Sephardic Jew named Spinoza DaCosta who is Cornbury's adviser and whose very best friend is a Native American named Munsee. This extended family is as non-traditional as they come, even by 21st century standards. When Cornbury manages to offhandedly and intellectually seduce a hunky blond Dutch boy named Rip Van Dam (son of the local firebrand preacher who is leading the charge against the governor), the crazy American quilt is complete. The necessity for indulgence...or better, tolerance...or best of all, authentic understanding and compassion, is exemplified by this spectacularly diverse entourage.
Cornbury, who changes from a dressing gown to an evening gown within minutes of our first encounter with him, is opposed by the Dutch establishment in New York; recall that New Amsterdam had received its new moniker in 1664, less than 40 years before Cornbury's arrival in the colony. His transvestism—very public and proud in Hoffman and Holland's version—makes him an easy target for the Dutch, who suspect him of a variety of perversions. But the play makes it clear that "family values" are a mere mask for the usual suspects in American politics (i.e., money and power).
Of course, this is hardly a serious "message" play: Cornbury is an arch, lighthearted, and frequently hilarious romp filled with absurd juxtapositions, the broadest of caricatured characterizations, and puns, double-entendres, and sexual innuendo of every stripe. Director Tim Cusack has staged it as a sort of grown-up pageant, with cast members muttering or singing or laughing during transitions where they reset the stage and raise and lower canvas backdrops that define the many locales of the story. Everything that happens in the show is heightened and deliberately askew (a nod to the producing company's apt name); even the Indian Brave and European Colonist who adorn either end of the show curtain (an off-kilter version of the Seal of the City of New York) are posed like ballet dancers. Kudos to Cusack's expert design team (Mark Beard, Jeffrey Wallach, Deborah Constantine, Matt Doers & Isaac Davison) for providing an agreeably outsized ambience to the piece.
Everett Quinton, so closely associated with the Ridiculous Theatre, plays the ostensible villain of the piece, Pastor Cornelius Van Dam, with all the puffed-up gruffness of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion; Cornbury's real enemy, a tigress named Margareta De Peyster, is portrayed aggressively by Bianca Leigh. In the title role, in a performance that's equal parts deeply-felt melancholy and post-everything camp, David Greenspan is commanding and hilarious. His comic timing is superb.
Standouts among the supporting players include Ashley Bryant as the spunky slave Africa, whose sense of entitlement is not betrayed by either circumstance or irony, and Christian Pedersen as hunky naif Rip Van Dam.
Cornbury: The Queen's Governor is a great deal of fun, and like all of the very best theatre, offers genuine substance as well. I wholeheartedly recommend it.