Agreeing to review leads one to a previously closed door. Working and living on the east coast of this large country can mean not having the opportunity to see new work produced elsewhere. Reading plays may not be as rich as seeing them produced, but it is certainly better than not knowing about them. I received in the mail two plays, The Art of Building a Bunker by Adam Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia, and The Virgin Trial by Kate Hennig, the former a one-man play and the latter “an imagining of history.” In some ways, the two plays could not be more different from each other.
The Virgin Trial centres on a young Elizabeth I, here “Bess,” when she was under investigation for treason. It focuses on three years, 1547 to 1549, but Hennig chooses to move the play forward with a series of flashbacks. We begin with Interview One—January 19, 1549—which is followed by a scene two years earlier with Bess and Thomas (“Tom”) Seymour, where he “helps” her with her paper and leaves her a book and a letter. The letter will be one of the many things Lord Protector Edward (“Ted”) Seymour will use to prove or disprove her guilt. The Virgin Trial, which is played in modern dress, focuses on how Bess must shift and reposition herself as past events are presented to her. Eleanor, a lady of the court, is the chief prosecutor, who has clearly already assumed the princess’ guilt. With or without Ted, she tries to implicate her, and it is also Eleanor who stands over the waterboarding of other prisoners.
The Art of Building a Bunker, meanwhile, tells the tale of a “sensitivity training” course that Elvis Goldstein must pass or he will lose his job. He is joined by five others who are instructed by Cam, who leads them through a series of exercises. After each day, Elvis retreats to his bunker. Cam, who seems to want everyone to paddle canoes into lakes, is the one truly comic character. He is surrounded by the other misfits who, like Elvis, are seen as unfit. Elvis has his own obvious problems but his classmates have more.
Each play has its own strengths. In the end, The Virgin Trial sustains its momentum, maintaining a strong and focused narration. The reader, despite knowing the history
of this period, remains engaged to the end. I can’t really say the same for The Art of Building a Bunker. While it does have some comic moments, particularly with the sensitivity training exercises, finally one wearies of the often obvious examples. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the main character, Elvis. Why is he in this class and why does he retreat to his bunker? These questions are not really answered in the end, which leaves the reader not confused but annoyed.