Too Much of a Good Thing

The Divine Visitor at NKU's Y.E.S. Festival (Review)

Apr 22, 2015 at 10:34 am
Hallie Hargus, Jennifer Rhodenhiser and Wes Carman in The Divine Visitor at NKU's Y.E.S. Festival
Hallie Hargus, Jennifer Rhodenhiser and Wes Carman in The Divine Visitor at NKU's Y.E.S. Festival

The third play in Northern Kentucky University’s biennial Year End Series (Y.E.S.) Festival is David L. Williams' The Divine Visitor. (In addition to this production, the 17th biennial festival is presenting Colin Speers Crowley’s Encore, Encore, about legendary wit and caustic critic Dorothy Parker, and Joe Starzyk’s It’s a Grand Night for Murder, a murder mystery spoof. Look for a review of those productions here.)

Williams’ play takes the form of a 17th-century Restoration comedy of manners, a style of British drama that flourished in London in the 1660s; it typically had a complicated plot and used wit and cynicism to tell stories of licentious behavior. The play is set in a pub, the Wolf & Fox Inn, in the fictional British town of Langfoss-on-the-Stow in 1665.

Mr. Whitestone (Wes Carman), the owner of the inn, has faked his death by drowning, a ploy to escape debts that he’s unable to pay back. But he’s a charlatan and a ladies man, and when he secretly spies numerous attractive women mourning his passing, he decides to stick around and take advantage of their yearning. His loyal and more reputable barkeep, Mr. Wren (Noah Berry), grudgingly goes along with the plot, and before long Whitestone is having his way — as a resurrected “angel” — with several women in town.

For most of the first act, The Divine Visitor very much follows the form of dramas by William Congreve, William Wycherley and George Farquhar — other than occasional speculation about the source of strange lights seen across the river. Act I concludes, however, with swirling sci-fi lighting and the arrival of a new “divine visitor,” Mackenzie Wells (McKynleigh Abraham), who has been inadvertently transported back through time (by a descendant of Whitestone) from 2015. Her first words upon arriving in 1665: “No fucking way.”

That pretty well sets up Act II in which she bests the 17th-century Whitestone at his own game, one-upping him as an “archangel” (she’s been in a production of Angels in America, she mentions, so she has some lines to spout) and planting the seeds of progressive opinion in the conservative British village. “Be nice to gays,” she tells them. “Women should have equal rights.”

The juxtaposition of 21st-century slang and 17th-century speech provides a lot of humor. Of course, it’s done for comic contrast, and playing with the historical conventions of this dramatic style. Williams has written dialogue for his 1665 characters that’s formal and archaic to modern ears, full of wit and sexual innuendo. The archangel Mackenzie has no such formality or restraint. She’s out to set things straight, especially focused on the immoral Whitestone and naive Mrs. Catherine Birch (Jennifer Rhodenhiser), a past lover who’s married but not too particular about straying. The woman from the future doesn’t stop there, however: She takes on the drunken constable (Andrew Bishop), a busybody widow (Allyson Mellick) and the easily addled minister (Clayton Winstead). But she meets a tough cookie in Mrs. Cecily Lightfoot (Hallie Hargus), a skeptic who has seen through Whitestone’s tomfoolery and doesn’t much believe that Mackenzie is a heavenly deity. They begin to admire one another and conspire to make some changes in the town.

At two-and-a-half hours, there’s too much of a good thing in The Divine Visitor. Jokes are repeated ad infinitum, especially in Act II. Abraham’s sassy 21st-century demeanor is amusing, but once you get that she’s spouting modern philosophy to bewildered people who live by very different standards, the humor wears thin. Carman as the cad has a kind of bad-boy charm, but the script demands him to sustain his ways far longer than they are engaging. Berry’s barkeep has a winning presence as the only person of principle, and Hargus’s Cecily uses a dry demeanor to convey her disbelief. Several others play stereotypes for too long. A little bit of such behavior goes a long way.

The Divine Visitor, staged by Michael King, has clever moments, but it’s a script that needs more pruning and refinement. Nevertheless, it’s provided NKU student actors a chance to perform in a historical style and then turn it upside down to explore modern attitudes from a very different perspective.

THE YEAR-END SERIES (Y.E.S.) FESTIVAL , produced every two years by Northern Kentucky University, continues through final performances at 1 p.m. Sunday.