Could you love a guy who said his “happiest, most prosperous year” was during London’s 1665 plague? Annie-B Parson (a founder along with her husband, actor/director Paul Lazar. of Brooklyn's Big Dance Theater) couldn’t resist him. The result is 17c, an ambitious, immersive theater piece (with a little dance thrown in) based on the diaries of Samuel Pepys. The performance opened the 21st annual Philly Fringe Festival Thursday evening to a gala crowd at the organization’s Race Street and Columbus Boulevard headquarters.
Pepys, an administrator in the Royal Navy, wrote a thousand-page diary over a 10-year span (1660-69). The work, both invaluable and infamous, offered a quotidian picture of London life as seen through the eyes of this upper-middle-class “gentleman.”
Words change, people don't
If the show’s opening scenes were annoyingly explicatory, I soon saw it as necessary to draw in audiences unfamiliar with 17th-century life. For instance, you might think a yard is the space behind your house where your grill and garbage can live. But no — bewigged Cynthia Hopkins, microphone in hand, schools us: for Pepys, a yard was his morning woody, a man’s most treasured wakeup call.
Lazar gives us the most psychological insight into Pepys, as man and husband. He ruminates, without much self-reflection, about dalliances with women other than his wife: in particular, Deb, the girl he hired as his wife’s companion.
Pepys married 14-year-old Élisabeth de St. Michel, and I suppose both he and Beth needed playmates, if for different reasons. Lazar’s long, loopy soliloquy, recited while wearing flowered leggings and draped over a La-Z-Boy armchair, quotes from the diary about Beth finding him with his hand up Deb’s skirt “in her cunny,” which Beth doesn’t find so funny. She tortures his sleep for weeks until he finally agrees to dismiss Deb, but only after he convinces himself Deb has literally bewitched him. Yet he pursues her in her new employment, where he is welcomed. Eventually, he also fires a Dancing Master once he realizes the man has been visiting twice a day. “No gentleman can dance as well as a Dancing Master.”
Oana Botez’s costumes uncannily mix contemporary with Reformation styles, further underpinning the complimentary contrasts of the period with our own. All wear underbust corsets except Lazar, at home in his t-shirt. Aaron Mattocks, as the Dancing Master, is a cross-dresser in a long skirt. Beth (Elizabeth DeMent) fantasizes about him while rotating around the floor in a silk moiré robe Pepys bought her to assuage his guilt over Deb.
Margaret Cavendish’s The Convent of Pleasure, a 1668 play that never saw the stage, becomes a play-within-this-play thanks to Jeff Larson’s video titles, which announce its arrival into the performance of 17c. Cavendish’s convent is for unmarried or widowed women, and the pleasures they enjoy within are guarded from men who plot to “penetrate” its walls. DeMent and Kourtney Rutherford sit behind a desk alternately performing as modern-day Saturday Night Live-style news anchors and lovers inside the convent.
I’d like to have seen more than the smattering sketches of court dancing, but overall this is engaging, well-plotted stagecraft, especially given the enormous breadth of the material. If you don’t finally come to love Pepys the man, I think you’ll love the theater he inspired.