In playwright (and OC Weekly critic) Joel Beers' heavily fictionalized and densely intelligent new play, Prophets Profit and William Blake, Blake is commissioned by entrepreneur George Hayley to create illustrations for a mass-produced version of the Bible under the condition that he not talk politics and keep his "visions to himself."
Those who know Blake know this would have been an implausible bargain. A Romantic poet and astonishing illustrator, Blake used his art to communicate a grand vision of Brotherhood and to remind us of our spiritual dependence on the earth. His personal theology incorporated the teachings of Christ while openly disparaging organized religion. This accounts for his place on society's hit list. Given to hallucinations and vilified as a crank and a paranoid, the brilliant Blake barely eked out a living, died a poor man and was buried in an unmarked grave. It wasn't until years later that academics re-examined his uncompromising work and accorded it respect he never earned during his life.
His deal with Hayley is doomed when Blake meets Joanna Southcot, an illiterate cleaning woman who receives prophecies from God. It is a meeting of hearts and minds. Blake's broken promise sets off a violent chain of events that draws in early anarchist Ned Ludd and survival-of-the-fittest economist Thomas Malthus.
The staging is compromised by an unwieldy set and overly gloomy lighting design; a little darkness goes a long way. But Patrick Gwaltney's direction has never been better, and his ensemble is impressive. Gavin Carlton is silky and slimy in his performance as Hayley, and while Mike Brainard's Blake screams too many times for my ears, he's otherwise haunting and commanding. Bradley A. Whitfield's Ludd is a bit of a cipher, but he's good enough to make you wish there were more scenes with him.
Beers' women have never been as well-written as his men, so while Jennifer Bishton's mere presence delicately shades the role of Joanna, she's occasionally too delicate. I hope Beers fleshes her out for future productions because the historical Southcot was about as intriguingly bizarre as they come, and she really doesn't get her due here.
Beers' earlier play Going to Greenland dealt with similar concerns about questionable visionaries and their dark paths. While raucous humor made his bitter pills easier to swallow in that wonderful piece, it also diluted the tragedy. There's still plenty of humor here, but it's well-deployed: these were real people, and there's more at stake in getting their ideas and aspirations—if not always the facts—correct.
Prophets warns that the ruthless persecution of those who see things the rest of us can't or won't results in our own anguish and emptiness. Like Blake, Beers knows the battle we fight every day is a war waged on our imaginations. Until people like Blake don't have to fight that battle alone, we should be screaming his message in the streets.
Prophets Profit and William Blake at Stages, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Dec. 29. $12-$15.