Nearly everything about “Androboros” makes it sound like a must-see show.
It was America’s first published play, printed in 1714, yet there is no record it has ever been publicly performed until this production by the Peculiar Works Project.
The playwright, Robert Hunter, ruled as Governor of New York, and his play is reportedly rooted in stories that are true, bizarre and occasionally scatological.
Hunter used satire to vent his frustration with the legislators of the New York Assembly, who blocked his every move. In the play, he deliberately assigns silly names to characters who are stand-ins for his enemies, constructing a tale in which the Keeper, the hero of the play (Hunter’s obvious stand-in), cleverly outsmarts the villain Androboros (which means “man eater”) and the villain’s allies, who vainly tried to outsmart the Keeper. Hunter claims in the play that the Assembly members conspired with the local clergy to frame him for a petty crime that scandalized New Yorkers of the day: During Hunter’s tenure, there was an actual break-in at Trinity Church (the same Trinity Church still existing at 75 Broadway 300 years later), after which the rector was shocked to find that the vandal or vandals had defecated on the prayer books and holy vestments. (Historians have given a name to this incident that sounds like an attempt to make it suitably sanitized for grade school textbooks: “the 1714 Vestment Scandal.”)
Peculiar Works Project, the 24-year-old company that is mounting the play, long has experimented with epic site-specific theater – I saw their “Manna-Hata,” nothing less than the history of New York City, which was presented in two mammoth floors of the main Post Office in midtown. This time, they have come up with an especially fitting site for “Androboros” – the Flag Gallery, a room in Fraunces Tavern, the building constructed just five years after the play. On their way upstairs to the show, theatergoers pass through a museum full of facts and artifacts about early New York.
The Peculiar people work hard to make this colonial farce 1. accessible, 2. entertaining and 3. relevant for a 21st century New York audience.
- They add a character they call the Teller, a modern-day historian to offer explanations and perspective in both a prologue and an epilogue(performed by the ubiquitous Off-Off Broadway theater artist Travis SD), while also including a scene-by-scene summary in the program
- They weave in more than a dozen songs, many of them original, tuneful, even jazzy, accompanied by Diana Byrne’s pleasing choreography, while Cathy Small’s colorful costumes and clownish makeup match the vivid characters with silly names like Ambassador Doodlesack.
- They highlight the parallels with modern-day politics: for example, Tom, the Clerk of the Assembly and an ally of the Keeper, says of Androboros: “He talks of nothing but battles and sieges, though he never saw one….” Some of the relevance is obviously a current-day update, such as the comment by Androboros (portrayed by stand-out Matt Roper): “Such a nasty woman, yet still she persists” and, later, Tom (Oscar Castillo): “When they go low, we go lower.” Rather less than credibly, the production also maintains, as the Teller puts it, “no other play in American history has ever been so closely associated with the country’s founding principles and documents.”
And they do all this in a total of just 75 minutes.
On paper, then, it sounds as if “Androboros” couldn’t be better. But on stage, “Androboros: Villain of the State”… could be better. For all Peculiar’s noble effort at clarification, the complicated plot just doesn’t have enough of a pay off to be worth the attentiveness required. Worse, Peculiar promotes Hunter’s play as a “mix of Elizabethan comedy and Italian Commedia dell’arte,” but if the broad mugging by too many of the dozen cast members represents the epitome of this hybrid genre, I’m relieved this theatrical style has fallen out of favor.
Written by Robert Hunter
Directed by Ralph Lewis
Original music by Spencer Katzman, additional text by Peter Davis,
Dramaturgy by Barbara Yoshida, lighting design by David Castaneda, costume design by Cathy Small, projection design by Blue Bliss, choreography by Diana Byrne.
Cast: Travis S.D. as Teller, Iftiaz Haroon as Keeper, Androboros as Matt Roper, Zoe Raphael as Deputy/Flip, Oscar Castillo as Tom, Benjamin Strate as Speaker, Roy Koshy as Coxcomb, Hank Lin as Mullignub, Caiti Lattimer as Aesop, Bianca ilish as Doodlesack/Messnger, Kendra Augustin as Solemn, Oliver Burns as Fizle,
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission.
Androboros is on stage at the Flag Gallery of St. Fraunces Tavern, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 7PM throughout October 2017