★★★☆☆ A rare chance to hang out with London’s witty literary crowd, circa 1770.
A cool wind has blown from the Midwest, through the 2019 Edinburgh Festival. In her latest work, playwright Marie Kohler, co-founder of Milwaukee’s Renaissance Theatreworks, keeps interesting company; so much so that it would be rude to blame him for rigging the timeline of the story.
In the framing device she uses, we follow a fictional researcher, Joan (Phoebe González), as she travels from Chicago to Scotland in the 1950s to uncover newly discovered manuscripts and journals believed to have been written by James Boswell at the end of the 18e century. Suddenly, we’re pushed back in time with Boswell (Josh Krause), as he frequents the taverns and saloons of London in pursuit of his intellectual crush, lexicographer and city geek Samuel Johnson (Brian Mani).
Set designer Jody Sekas set the scene with a versatile set packed with Johnson-era effects: maps, books, and more. highlands to an attic littered with manuscripts, with various detours along the way. Kohler’s script flows with equal sleight of hand. With such witty characters, sparkling dialogue is almost guaranteed, and Kohler deftly pulls together his direct quotes.
Four of the six cast members switch characters in the blink of an eye (think 39 steps). Aside from Krause (captivating in the title role: he conveys just the right amount of puppy devotion) and González, sadly struggling with a rather dull and time-displaced character (the diaries have mostly been unearthed in the 1920s and 2000s). 30s), everyone shines in their round of roles.
Mani is as masterful as Johnson: he exudes the intelligence that would have earned the scholar all the reverence due to his time. He also comes across as Boswell’s cold and demanding father – a nice Freudian touch.
Rebecca Hurd is attractive in her many guises, including portrait painter Joshua Reynolds, the holy Mrs. Boswell (who manages to ignore her husband’s peccadilloes), and a gambling bartender. To Johnson’s dismay, Boswell always has her eyes peeled. a little to the side. It seems the compulsive columnist was also pretty addicted to sex and uniquely suited for the chase: “We came to a sweet conclusion five times!” he boasts of a lover (Hurd again), who graciously agrees, “You are a prodigy.”
Miriam A. Laube covers actor David Garrick (mocked for squeezing a hidden pig’s bladder to make Hamlet’s hair stand on end in the Ghost scene) and Lady Fiona, the earth-smart, earth-smart aristo who dominates a deteriorated presbytery filled with possible literary treasures. Fiona is down to earth and practical, while Joan is a bit of a jerk. We never get to browse the vaunted porn stowed “in the croquet box,” but there are plenty of juicy bits floating around.
The two women, with their contrasting styles, deserve a play of their own, and almost get one: their differences become apparent as the play ends. How interesting it would have been to set these two back a few decades, when the place of a woman, before the Second World War, was even more restricted.
Still, the production, as it stands, offers many unexpected pleasures, not the least of which is the opportunity to see talented actors working their stage magic (without pig’s bladders) up close – really up close. The piece also serves as a welcome reminder of an era that, aside from its many barbarisms, at least revered its forward-thinking intelligentsia.
Boswell opened November 16, 2022 at 59E59 and will run until December 4. Tickets and information: 59e59.org