The Handcart Ensemble, in its third year of operation, is fast carving a niche for itself in the New York theatre scene by consistently producing visually arresting productions of marvelously detailed simplicity - the kind of intelligent simplicity that is often attempted and rarely achieved.
That simplicity stood them in good stead with their latest effort, an original verse tragedy based on the Old Testament tale of David and Bathsheba, an epic potboiler if ever there was one. King David of Israel, declining to join his troops in battle one year, has a brief affair with Bathsheba, wife of one of his best soldiers. On learning Bathsheba has become pregnant, David fears the impending discovery of their affair will put his crown at risk. His determination to cover up the liaison at any cost sets the play's tragic events in motion.
J. Scott Reynolds (who wrote and directed) has proven himself quite adept at the difficult art of verse writing, and there were moments in the play that flew with beautifully written grace. But more often than not, the concise clarity that marked his earlier work was missing. And for a tale with potentially explosive dynamics, human and otherwise, it was curiously chaste in both the writing and the hypnotically paced direction. Only one scene, late in the second act, crackled with any energy or tension, a brief, emotionally charged exchange between David (the terrific James Mack) and his prophet-counselor Nathan (a commanding and intense Paul Lewis-Ferguson).
Nonetheless, the production's dedicated cast - admittedly all at varying comfort levels with the verse, from the comfortably at ease Mack, Ferguson, Barrett Ogden, T. Colby Trane, and Meredith Higbee to the less obviously comfortable Christina Joy Walton (a touching Bathsheba) to the obviously uncomfortable but game Antonio Maccia - was a joy to behold as they gave it their all with an enviably smooth elegance that seemed as effortless and natural as the production's physical aspects.
It was in those physical aspects that Handcart's innate intelligence really shone. With no set at all, just a bare wooden floor and a brick wall, and very little in the way of lighting (designer Tamara Shelp had a scant eight instruments to work with), props, and costuming (a deceptively sumptuous job by Nancy Yam), Reynolds and company conjured up a convincing recreation of the Old Testament world. Even when it was heavy going, there was always some little detail that commanded attention and inspired awe. It was just disappointing, given their track record, that this David and Bathsheba, for all of its smart theatricality, was an evening that inspired awe at the intelligence on display without also being an emotionally engaging one.
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita