Contemporary British royals cope with a constant plague of peeping paparazzi and tawdry tabloids that gleefully document the dirty Windsor laundry. Their noble ancestors weren't spared, either. Centuries of monarchical foibles and follies are highlighted in The Hollow Crown, an entertaining mix of poetry, prose and song staged by Vermont's newest theater group, WordStage.
The literature-meets-music ensemble is the brainchild of Montpelier's Tim Tavcar, director of the Monteverdi Music School and jack-of-all trades at Lost Nation Theater. WordStage marries his lifelong passions for classical music and theater, with some fresh twists. The simple premise - a four- or five-person group doing staged reading of texts and performing related songs - opens up a wealth of dramatic possibilities. The small scale makes it "a very portable venture. All we need is one or two props and some suggestive costumes - suggestive in the sense of [historical] period!" says Tavcar. "The production values are minimal, and the focus is all on the spoken words and the music."
In a visual, video-driven culture, people have forgotten the elemental pleasure of listening to literature, Tavcar believes. A significant slice of family life used to center around the act of reading aloud, from the Bible to the latest Dickens installment. Disembodied radio voices later took over the storytelling. Tavcar remembers the powerful impact of hearing plays on Caedmon Records' series of spoken-word LPs. "This whole project hearkens back" to these antecedents, he says. Musical selections are "designed to complement the words," and often are suggested directly in the source texts.
Of the five programs planned for the premiere WordStage season, The Hollow Crown is the only show for which Tavcar isn't creating his own original script. The breakneck tour through British history includes acid-tongued observers who catalogue royal licentiousness and incompetence; the monarchs themselves, who turn out to be passable poets; and Scottish songwriters, who prove masters of the crude, kiss-my-bum ditty.
The vivid texts humanize rulers who are, at best, distant history-class memories. For example, James I - remember him? - fired off a stinging missive against a dangerous American agricultural import. His early-17th-century "Counterblaste to Tobacco" is bound to win him some new 21st-century fans: Smoking, he wrote, is "a custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lung, and in the black stinking fumes thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the Pit that is Bottomless."
Tavcar is currently devising scripts for this season's other four programs, on topics related to Rossini, Chopin, Kurt Weill and Dorothy Parker. He hopes the diversity "will appeal to a variety of people," he explains. For example, "We're doing the Algonquin set, and that's nothing but people sitting around and being bitchy and listening to jazz music." Two of four evenings reference the theme of sin, which should certainly fill seats.
What excites Tavcar about the WordStage format is that "almost anything is fair game," he says. "Because I think people in their letters and diaries are the most passionate that they can be. So the source material is limitless, whether it's from the individuals that you're doing the works about themselves, or whether it's people writing about them." One early sign of success: Friends are already proposing projects for next season.
The Hollow Crown, with WordStage. McCarthy Arts Center Recital Hall, St. Michael's College, Colchester, October 19, 8 p.m.; Unitarian Church, Montpelier, October 20, 8 p.m.; North Unitarian Universalist Church, Woodstock, October 21, 7 p.m.; Alexander Twilight Theater, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, October 25, 7:30 p.m.; Centre Congregational Church, Brattleboro, October 28, 4 p.m. $15-20. For tickets and info: 229-9000, or http://www.wordstagevt.com.