Standing outside the Taproot Theatre last Friday night waiting for the doors to open, I eavesdropped on some young people one-upping each other on heroic stretches they'd had to make, moving from city to city. One triumphant nomad clinched the argument: "Well, imagine going from San Diego to Spokane!" That conversation came back to me more than once during Jeff Berryman's "Arthur: The Begetting," running through March 6 at The Taproot.
Berryman's primal drama demands an imaginative leap that makes San Diego-to-Spokane look like baby steps. Beam us back, Scotty, from Seattle 2004 to 5th-century Britain, from civilized security to the dangerous cusp between savagery and progress, to wild woods and rough bastions warded by primitive Christian cross and ancient Celtic runes. On the eve of Seattle's Democratic caucuses to choose a presidential candidate, the Taproot audience watched as a woman - more goddess than mortal - and the three men who love her vie ruthlessly for power in a divided, besieged land. Willing or not, each of the four plays a necessary role in the coming of fabled Arthur, the once and future king who is Britain.
Myth is your ticket to ride in "Arthur: The Begetting" - and so the thrust stage at Taproot is properly stripped to iconic bare bones: two weathered stelae, bearing Christian and pagan signage, a few stones to connote wilderness. In that arena, variously representing indoors and outdoors, Igraine (Nikki Visel Whitfield) is primum mobile, playing her three lovers one against the other, weighing their worthiness to father a needed savior.
In most versions of Arthur's begetting, virtuous Igraine is hapless object of Uther Pendragon's lust, duped into bed by Uther disguised as her husband; she's merely an incubator for destiny. In Berryman's play, Igraine has more in common with a Celtic fertility goddess, for whom the health of the land is paramount, achieved through coupling with the most virile of men ("The land is a mirror of the hand that tills it"). She is the still center of the traditional Celtic knot, around which her acolytes weave.
At first sight, Vikki Visel Whitfield's Igraine seems to lack physical and emotional heft. Robed in pleated bright-orange, her hair a mane of red, she flits between a mirror - where she primps for marriage to Cornwall - and her childhood love, Emrys of Powys (Mathew Ahrens). She's almost lighthearted as she explains her marriage of political convenience, a match that will add spears in the war against the encroaching Anglo-Saxons. And Emrys is still a soft-faced boy, almost petulant in his disappointment.
It's to the credit of both actors that as the play progresses they take on weight, grow larger. Their faces thin from individuality into masks that emblematize their increasingly hieratic character. As her voice becomes ever more resonant with prophecy, Igraine seems to grow visibly taller in her great woolen cloak. By midplay it's clear she can and will do anything: a Lady Macbeth with larger fish to fry than mere advancement in the food chain, she means to make history.
Standing between the two poles of warriors Uther (Nolan Palmer) and Terynon (Tim Barr), Emrys slowly evolves into wise counselor and mediator. He may yet become Merlin, the magus who will raise Arthur. He has Igraine's heart, and in, say, a Hollywood musical, they would probably run off together, king and country be damned. But this is Darwinian myth, not "Camelot," and so ruthlessly singleminded is the mother-to-be of Arthur, she's capable of contriving the murder of a husband whose only sin is that he isn't as strong as Uther. And yet, Visel Whitfield's Igraine kneels and grieves genuinely over Terynon's corpse, for she loves him as well as Emrys. We're made to understand she's both spider and fly in this web, foreseeing the future and yet falling victim to it.
Interesting that Igraine's infidelity in service of saving the land finds a slant rhyme with Guinevere's faithlessness, which will turn Arthur's Camelot into a wasteland. Berryman makes Igraine mother to Morgan and Arthur; according to some Arthurian legends, Morgan is incestuously instrumental in Arthur's downfall. In "Arthur: The Begetting," Morgan is still an (offstage) infant. Young Kaili Hunsaker plays Igraine's prepubescent daughter Anna, with a fey intelligence reminiscent of Anna Paquin in Jane Campion's "The Piano."
The play's "action" includes a sudden knifing and a credible swordfight, but for the most part it takes the form of passionate conversational gambits, emotional thrust and parry - primarily between Igraine and one of her suitors, or between Igraine and all three men. The whole play can be seen as ritual dance, characterized by advances and withdrawals, until only one couple remains, embracing.
Tim Barr projects a Terynon who offers a good heart, a sweet nature, courage, but betrays some lack of sand, a soft spot where Igraine seeks armor. Uther, as incarnated by Nolan Palmer, is a great bear in heat, a pagan throwback. Long-haired with braided beard, clad in animal skins, he's game for any test the beautiful queen sets him. Yet Uther isn't drawn her simply out of lust. We see that he's no musclebound dummy, as he beams at fierce Igraine with delighted admiration, acknowledging her as his equal. And he grows up to her, tempering his berserker ways and inviting her to choose him freely.
Blood sacrifice punctuates Igraine's slowly emerging design: there's the "blood of Christ" she shares in communion with Gaius (Williams Kumma), the Roman doctor accused of assassinating Ambrosius, former warlord of Dumnonia. Ambiguity infects Gaius' stabbing: does his blood pay for regicide or drown testimony that might damn Igraine?
After she and Uther swear a blood oath, cut hand to cut hand, he's rendered sexually impotent; his palm festers as though his hunger for Igraine has become literal wound. And finally the blood of Terynon of Cornwall, Igraine's husband and father of her children, is spilled down one of the pillars. Throughout the play, Igraine herself, scarlet-clad and red-haired, is both flame and beating heart. Birthing myth, according to Berryman, is bloody labor.
The language of "Arthur: The Begetting" is often strikingly, poetically apt, but the acoustics and shape of the Taproot stage frequently prevented my hearing the dialogue clearly - especially when an actor spoke with his back toward my seating area. The cast speaks in lilting Gaelic cadences, quite lovely to the ear. The accent emphasizes the Celtic connection: Igraine's land is a collection of tribes defeated by Rome, superficially Christianized, overrun by Germanic barbarians.
That Britain existed some 1,500 years ago. What, you might ask, does Jeff Berryman's drama about the begetting of Arthur have to say to us today? In fact, does myth matter anymore? Well, maybe. Mythologist Joseph Campbell gloried in the way certain patterns - cycles of heroic birth, death, resurrection - recur with variations in every human culture. He believed that these archetypal patterns satisfied some primal need - for order? for progress? for immortality? "Arthur: The Begetting" celebrates the power of belief in designs that are larger than we are, designs that power and re-power cultures, firing them up just when they've run out of steam - or the barbarians are at the gates. And that's a good thing.