Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe
Sanctuary: A Medieval Murder Mystery
A previous play by Allen, Lost Letter, premiere at the Adobe in 2013. It was a nostalgic but original tale that I enjoyed, and I wished it well. Sanctuary, his new play, has potential in its setting (medieval England) but doesn't fully actualize that potential. Plot-wise, it is not much more than a Perry Mason episode, which is disappointing in a murder mystery nowadays. I was hoping for something more devilishly clever. It's entertaining enough, but there's not much meat to it.
The play takes place in 1349, during a plague that killed about a third of the English population. It opens with a young man, Thomas Fletcher, running into a chapel and claiming sanctuary. He is accused of killing a young woman of the town, and we don't know if he did it or if he is being framed. The priest, Father Amaury D'Godfrey, grants him sanctuary and tries to puzzle out the truth. He is aided in this by Sir Walter, a local nobleman who was fond of the young woman. There are a few potential murderers. If you can guess who killed her, you're more astute than I am. One of my problems with the play is that there are no clues until the end as to who did itat least, none that I picked up on.
There is a sub-plot with Father Amaury's sister Lady Anna appearing to tell him that their older brother has died of the plague, leaving Amaury the lord of the family estate. Will he give up the priesthood and return to the aristocratic life that he abjured when he took up the cloth? This could lead to a discussion about the relative value of the clerical life versus the secular, or how duty to one's family can conflict with duty to God, but none of this is developed.
The historical setting provides the opportunity for us to learn a little something about the concept of religious sanctuary; for example, that it lasts for only forty days and at that point the supplicant has to either stand trial or admit guilt and go into exile, never to return. What's missing is a discussion about how the tradition of sanctuary developed, whether it was justifiable, and what power the church had relative to the state. (It turns out that King James abolished sanctuary in England in 1623. I thought it still existed.)
The dialogue is not fake old English. It sounds like contemporary speech, if somewhat formal. The educated people use good grammar, the lower classes say things like "I ain't done nothing, Father." But twice, Anna asks her brother "Are you wroth with me?" What is this archaism doing in this otherwise colloquial script?
Despite the missed opportunities for more substantial subject matter, the play is never boring, I'll give it that. The direction by George A. Williams keeps it moving, and the play clocks in at under two hours, including intermission. Even so, the space between scenes would seem shorter if there were some snippets of music playing. And I wish that directors would take into account the entire audience when blocking their actors. I was sitting on the side of the seating area, not in the center, and too many times I could see only the back of an actor and nothing at all of the person opposite him or her, and I missed many crucial facial expressions.
Based on what I could see, though, the acting is quite good by all. Stephen Zamora, Clifton Chadwick, and Ronda Lewis have a lot of acting experience and they do good work here. Bryan Lambe has been versatile elsewhere, but here he has been directed to do little more than shout and scowl. It's always enjoyable to see new faces on the stage, and there are several that impressed me. Riley Carson Lewis gets better with each show, but he doesn't have to display much range here. High-schooler Will Zmroczek looks to be a natural for the theater; I hope to see more of him. Emma Tyrrell, only ten years old, holds her own with the grownups. And Larry Welz is great fun as Lady Anna's old retainer, well past his prime but as macho as ever.
I do give credit to the Adobe for taking a chance on new work by local playwrights, and I hope they keep the tradition going. Sanctuary is not as strong as some of their previous offerings, but nobody bats a thousand.
Sanctuary: A Medieval Murder Mystery, a new play by W.G. Allen, directed by George A. Williams, is being presented at the Adobe Theater in Albuquerque, on 4th Street NW, a few blocks north of Alameda. Through March 5, 2017. Friday and Saturday at 7:30, Sunday at 2:00. Info at www.adobetheater.org.