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Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Scenes from Court Life
or the whipping boy and his prince
Yale Repertory Theatre

Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Fred's recent reviews of Meteor Shower and Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz

T. Ryder Smith and Greg Keller
Photo by Carol Rosegg
Sarah Ruhl's new, immensely provocative Scenes from Court Life, or the whipping boy and his prince, at Yale Rep through October 22nd, juxtaposes the dynasty of Stuart Kings Charles I and II in seventeenth century England with America's own Bush clan. The plot and the coming-together of this comic drama are collaborative. Ruhl works again with director Mark Wing-Davey, aboard for her 2008 Passion Play. Wing-Davey provided graduate acting students from NYU and the group researched topics including sibling rivalry (George and Jeb Bush), royal succession, and so on. The result is a very full, political play and one which ultimately denounces war.

Ranging back into a time less familiar to many of us, Charles I (T. Ryder Smith) became a King in 1625. It was not until 1660 that his son Charles II (Greg Keller) came to power. Charles I was beheaded for treason. Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (Keren Lugo) but they were not able to have children. Ruhl has also written in Groom of the Stool (Jeff Biehl), whose job it was to tend the King. A Whipping Boy (Danny Wolohan) took all kinds of punishment.

Far more recognizable are George W. Bush (Keller), Jeb (Wolohan), George H. W. Bush (Ryder Smith), Barbara Bush (Mary Shultz), and Laura Bush (Angel Desai). Wing-Davey and his crew create imaginative tennis court play through simulation and sound. The Bush brigade is marked by those who had expertise, those who triumphed, those who won and lost, etc. Laura, by the way, is most often immersed in a book. Jeb, the younger and smarter and taller of his Bush generation, could not match George W. in terms of election to higher office. The elder George H. W. Bush doesn't fare terribly well in Ruhl's depiction. Of all, Keller's spot-on accent and grasp of George W. Bush's persona claim first prize for emulation.

The divine right of those families who inhabit highest office in a land becomes a focus. The first act of the play, spiced up with the tennis sequences, zips right by. Mary Shultz's Barbara Bush is a deft tennis player! The first 25 minutes or so of the second portion of the play are expository and a bit slow. Not enough happens; Karl Rove (Biehl) gets some stage time—and then the action moves forward. A precious contemporary debate sequence between Jeb and Donald Trump is a brief, comedic highlight. Sarah Ruhl has said that she became agitated when Jeb Bush was trying to become the current Republican nominee, and she began to contemplate the implications of another Bush presidency.

As the play draws to a close, the playwright makes her feelings clear, through her scripting, that warfare is horrific. All say: "Let the politicians tell the the truth Let the actors all pretend." Next, men add, "Let the fathers hold their children close. Let the wars come to an end." At the very end, all declare: "If there be a Lord—Let the whipping end—Let the whipping end—Let the killing end."

Ruhl and those who have been collaborative took on a great deal with Scenes from Court Life. Most of the strands of the play weave together. Humor helps and the Bush caricatures enrich the evening by providing another dimension. None of the men in that family receive favorable treatment. Laura seems to be a sane individual and actress Angel Desai, who plays Laura, opens the performance as a musician (not the Laura Bush character) who plays harpsichord.

Marina Draghici's sets wonderfully fuel rather than overwhelm the production. Her choices for wardrobe enhance each of the time periods described. Greg Keller is dressed in George W. Bush garb during a moment when he is speaking as his other character, Charles II. This choice (utilized elsewhere, too) provides linkage between the depicted epochs. It is thoughtful and actually clarifies.

Scenes from Court Life is ambitious, complicated, and politicized. Sarah Ruhl is a gifted writer. My favorite of her plays is still Eurydice, at Yale Rep a decade ago. Now she examines, with sterling production and creative teams, ruling families. Intellect and imagination come together within the contexts of Yale Rep's presentation.

Scenes from Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince continues at the University Theatre, the initial play of Yale Repertory Theatre's current season, through October 22, 2016, in New Haven, Connecticut. For tickets call (203) 432-1234 or visit, for further information,

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