Richard F. Stockton's courtroom drama Prisoner of the Crown is filled with so many dubious distinctions about the defendant, Sir Roger Casement, that the play should be a knockout. For example, put to death in 1916, Sir Roger has the "honor" of being the last knight ever to be executed for treason. Due to a literal reading of the letter of the law, he has the syntactical pleasure of being the only man ever "hung by a comma." In his trial, he had firsthand experience with the mudslinging of the government, which used the hint of homosexuality in his "black diaries," forged or not, to bias the jury. But the play suffers from a few other dubious distinctions: Richard T. Herd is credited as a co-author (which could explain the irregularity of the writing), and Ciaran O'Reilly has abandoned his stellar work with realism (Sive, Defender of the Faith), and plunged this work into a jazz-era hokeyness that undermines the thematic structure.
Prisoner of the Crown looks sloppy and misdirected. Whereas a playful show like Chicago has cause to break into song and dance, there's no reason to break the tension of Casement's trial. It's already chopped up enough, with comic asides to the audience from Patrick Fitzgerald and the sudden shifts that turn Philip Goodwin from the man on trial into the lone juror refusing to convict him. And it already looks thrown together, with props being wheeled around slapdash to allow for "scene changes," and Charles Corcoran's set feeling very pub-like--it's got everything but the bar (festive green strands dress the four corners up like St. Patrick's Day). Add in the sad jazz that plays between scenes and you've got an vague, anachronistic show that would rather play than be a play.
As with many Irish plays, I find myself drawn to the villain, that repugnant charmer. John Windsor-Cunningham doesn't disappoint, and his scenes with Ian Stuart are what draw our attention--and our scorn. As prosecutors, the two manipulate evidence and wonderfully undermine the defense; as jurors (all eight actors are at least double-cast in this role), the two push for a "guilty" verdict, and belittle those who disagree, calling any dissenter's sexuality into question. The problem is that while Tim Ruddy, as the defense's Sergeant Sullivan, provides them with a dramatic challenge, the rest of the cast is a bit of a pushover, especially the hero. Philip Goodwin plays him earnestly, but like an erstwhile martyr--that is, like a man already dead--and it's simply not an interesting choice.
Some audiences will no doubt enjoy the history lesson, primed as it is with lines like "No empire can survive the loss of its moral authority" to cast judgment on our current political mudslinging. More likely, audiences will be bored and confused by this unimaginative and unfortunately comic "swift boat" of a play. Here's a political parallel for you: one cannot run a campaign (or a play) on cleverness: you need passion, too.
Thursday, May 22, 2008