World-Premiere Drama Probes Service And Servitude

By Carolyn Hayes

To exact grand social or political change requires sacrifice. Some of history's greatest rainmakers put aside comfort, safety, self and longevity, trading them for hunger strikes, political disobedience, the threat of arrest and long imprisonment, or even martyrdom. For a cause or an office to achieve such importance for someone that it usurps her life must take terrible hardship, extreme conviction, or both. To find such oppression and inequity, Michigan playwright Joseph Zettelmaier turns to history, turning the privations of 14-century England into a kaleidoscope of inescapable circumstances.

Now in its world premiere at The Jewish Ensemble Theatre, "The Scullery Maid" (directed by Joseph Albright) cultivates the impetus to do something desperate enough to make an impact, then pushes that principle to its breaking point.

On a July night in 1360, with a summer storm on the horizon, the Nottingham Castle kitchen is finishing a feast to celebrate the peace accord between England and France after years of conflict. Although the servants at the royal residence have the benefit of shelter and warmth, as well as the prestige of attending loyally to their king, they are not entirely immune from the destitution in the kingdom beyond. Another wave of the Black Death plague has taken all but three of the kitchen staff; the unhygienic standard of the time is subtly referenced in Diane E. Ulseth's properties design and Mary Copenhagen's costumes built to weather daily soil. The jaunty music from a farther room (by sound designer Matthew Lira) will never be for these women; the closest they usually come is their interactions with Pascal (Alan Madlane), the King's French-born steward and a personable liaison to the house staff.

Still, even in the lowly kitchen there is evident pride in the country and its leadership, as well as in the work - especially from the head cook, Bess (Ruth Crawford), as she shows the ropes to newcomer Dulcie (Jacquie Floyd), a former prostitute whose dim crassness is trumped by her street-savvy survival instinct. Between them in rank is the 20-year-old scullery maid, Miriam (Julia Garlotte), a rare Jewish Englander who was born, raised and orphaned in the castle.

Yet what begins as innocuous castigation and common workplace chatter among them quickly escalates with the pace of information, as schemes and secrets come to light. Miriam has an agenda and is ready to enact justice, using a plan both hindered and helped by the constraints of her position, but as she waits for the pieces to fall into place, personal concerns and political convictions begin to intertwine.

The devastating tension of having no voice, little agency, and few scant options flourishes throughout the first act, as Garlotte's flinty resolve ricochets against her scene partners. A spellbinding recollection by Crawford is a particular highlight, adding layers of context as well as lending vital personal stakes to the ideological exercise.

Scenic designer Jennifer Maiseloff then reveals to the viewer how the other half lives, trading soot stains for luxe tapestries in the palace's royal bed chamber, which Neil Koivu's lighting design favors with a faint gilded glow. Yet the room's resident, the newly idle King Edward III (John Manfredi), lets pent-up peacetime energy overcome his stately austerity, manifesting in a display of status that's almost coquettish in its immaturity. Here is a person service-bound in a different way, destined by birth to be defined by his reign, and its effects on him are no less absorbing. What Manfredi unleashes is a maddening strategy game of intentions, executed with the wicked confidence of someone who's holding all the cards.

The revelations in "The Scullery Maid" start fast and keep coming faster, making it difficult to describe what happens without chipping away at the script's capacity to pivot and surprise. However, it may be safe to say that the show and its direction take a major turn late in the play.

Initially, Albright masters the helplessness of a great unknowable trajectory, teasing out a single aim and tossing obstacles in its path, which Garlotte approaches with the intensity of a caged animal. Yet when opportunities and passions finally align, this compelling urgency morphs into something else, as carefully deployed discoveries turn the objective into a moving, changing target.

What ensues is a hard-hitting barrage, both emotionally and physically (with gritty fight choreography by Manfredi), as the action flips and catapults to a morally indistinct climax. What Miriam does, and who for, and why, are questions that viewers will be turning over in their minds for some time after the final blackout.

With "The Scullery Maid," Zettelmaier takes a selfless-hero story and runs it through with realistic consequences, ambiguous shades of gray, and plenty of dramatic curveballs.

With this production, Albright and company seize on the direness of the period, creating a darkly dramatic world in which there are no clear victories, in which it falls to each person to make sense of himself and his place in history.



'The Scullery Maid'

The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday & Sunday through Jan. 12. 2 hours. $41-48. 248-788-2900.

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