Listen to the Lady

Photo by Todd FussellFor the broad-minded, the liberal and the sophisticated—in other words, for people like us—in a town where megachurch sermons are the entertainment of choice, it's easy to wonder if being out of step with the mainstream is worth the aggravation.

Christopher Fry's elegantly lyrical piece The Lady's Not for Burning has little to do with politics and less with democracy. But the play—written almost 60 years ago and eerily reminiscent of Shakespeare in its verbal facility, wit and poetry—says something profound about what Emile Durkheim called “anomie,” a gussied-up French word for loneliness brought on by a disconnection with confused or unclear societal norms.

Jennet is a reclusive eccentric accused of evil-doing by her small-minded neighbors. Thomas is a world-weary soldier who would rather die than live in a world of dimwits. They've descended on the home of a small-town mayor, both seeking solace in a world they don't understand—and that doesn't understand them.

It takes time, however, in this Vanguard Theatre Ensemble production for the audience to understand it's not watching a simple costume drama. Fry's masterful poetry is torturous for many actors, and that makes it torturous for the audience. Further hindering the tongue-tied actors in his cast is director Wade Williamson's choice to use English accents, even though the play occurs in some fictitious—not necessarily English—15th-century town.

Not until Jennet (the very talented Jill Cary Martin) arrives late in the first act does this muddled, muffled play reveal itself as a wry, amusing comedy in which the oddest characters wind up the happiest. Jennet's real crimes are being the daughter of a dead alchemist, speaking French to her poodle, dining with her peacock on Sundays and not chillin' with the townsfolk. An attractive, mysterious female in a small medieval town can mean only one thing: she's a witch! When a local disappears, it's obvious the sorceress has turned him into a dog. A mob gathers, the faggots are collected and the panic-stricken Jennet flees to the mayor's home to plead for protection.

The problem (for the bloodthirsty mob) is that Thomas Mendip (a taciturn John Brennan, who needs to vigorously attack the role), a soldier sick of man's cruelty and stupidity, has beaten her to the mayor's house with an unusual story: he's the devil, he tells the mayor, and he's just killed the same townsman and now demands his own hanging. This forces the mayor to either save a man who wants death but whom nobody wants dead or save a woman who wants life but whom the entire town wants burned.

The play works on several levels: soaring poetics; commentary on the difference between youthful, exuberant infatuation and mature, reasoned love; and, most intriguing, the battle of withdrawing from an unfair world or embracing whatever beauty might be found in it. The latter uncoils through the contrasting viewpoints of the life-affirming Jennet and the life-denying Thomas. As they engage in exquisitely written skirmishes of words, a certain kind of hope manifests: these two weirdoes, whom the rest of the world dismiss as fools, find they share a language that may rescue each from the perils of life among the masses. The fact this language is so spectacularly rendered is what makes this Ladyworth a listen.

The Lady's Not For Burning at the Vanguard Theatre Ensemble, 120-A W. Wilshire Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-8007. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Feb. 20. $18-$20.

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