Back in the late Middle Ages, the hottest new serial drama was “The British Matter” — tales of King Arthur and his Round Table knights. The GOT-like stories were being invented, borrowed (no copyright laws), reinvented, and performed by troubadors at royal courts and inns all over Europe. The Arthur craze lasted almost 300 years.
As a result, the countless tales don’t mesh very well. This has kept Camelot fans — and scholars — busy for centuries, trying to sort them out. Now along comes Hailey Bachrach, a young troubador (okay, playwright) and scholar who sees a new way to fit the myth’s main pieces together. From a woman’s point of view, natch.
Clarissant tells of King Arthur’s niece, who survived the fall of Camelot (where all five of her knightly brothers died). The play is driven by Clarissant’s urgent quest to learn the story aright, before she can accept — or reject — the crown. She doesn’t invent anything; she simply turns the puzzle pieces this way and that, until they fit.
Because Clarissant’s inquest is the matter of this tale, I won’t recount it. I will note that the princess inquires by using magic — which, for her, is summoning stories — and her intuition. You might not notice, while watching, that this is exactly what Bachrach the modern troubador is doing. (I admit I didn’t, until this writing). But such layered elegance is one of the joys of Clarissant.
Lest you think the play’s pleasures are purely intellectual, let me hasten to add there’s lots of fan service. If you’re feeling XY, you get sword fights aplenty; if you’re feeling XX, all the powerful knights are portrayed by women. (Indeed, the only male actor steps briefly on and off as a servant.)
Little Candle, a small company that essays one show a year, gives Clarissant a smart, smooth production for its world premiere.
Set designer Kate Woodruff (and director Allison Darby Gorjian) provide an immediately recognizable world, with clever tapestries and a tree that looms like a ghost yet functions as an umbrella stand for swords. Betsy Roth’s costumes also invoke the imaginary era of chivalry’s birth, and allow actors — most of whom are double-cast, and move between life and afterlife — to shape-shift instantly. The lights (Rob Van Guelpen) and sound (Katie Powell) guide us along unobtrusively, and fight master David Chrzanowski’s stylized battles are swift and clear.
Among the performers, Olivia Choate is a treat as the buffed-up, fiercely loyal Gawain, then as a wry, avuncular (but still macho) Lancelot; and Whitton Frank darts and plots craftily as Mordred, while wielding confident gravitas as Arthur. Dawn Alden portrays an irascible Agravain who’s just a step behind things, and a surprising Guinevere who has gone beyond the world into grave wisdom. Kym Allen brings irrepressible vitality to Gareth, and crabbed mystery to Lady Ragnelle, while Renée Torchio MacDonald’s Gaheris leaps innocently into each fray, looking for the side of right. And almost everybody gets a ghost turn, including a moment as Morgaine, the sorceress in whose web this whole world seems entangled.
Linzi Graham (the tart, worldly Lynette) and Karissa McKinney (gentle, accepting Lyonor) are Clarissant’s quest companions. Reluctant conscripts, they constantly urge their sister-in-law to put down her visions and rejoin the present. As Clarissant, Paula Deming shoulders what is perhaps the play’s most daunting challenge — to remain unresolved in a world where everyone else is full of certainty. (Like Hamlet, that other hesitant royal heir, she might benefit from a bit more steely resolve and a bit less dreamy self-questioning, either in the writing — a soliloquy, perhaps? — or the performing.
A bit of tweaking only.)
Overall, Clarissant is a worthy unveiling for a happily fresh take on Arthurian myth. Bachrach’s use of the Lady Ragnelle legend is especially adroit — this oft-neglected corner of the tapestry of Sir Gawain stories turns out to have held the key to Camelot’s collapse for all these centuries.
If you’re an Arthur fan, a lover of quasi-medieval romances, or a player of sword-and-sorcery games, you will find much delight in Clarissant. If you are a woman, a feminist of any wave, or an ally, you will enjoy it even more. This is the angle from which we need to see and tell these stories, from now on.
Clarissant, by Hailey Bachrach, directed by Allison Darby Gorjian.
Presented by Little Candle Productions, at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through December 23rd.