Review: "The Jester's Wife" Makes Much of History's Minor Characters

The Jester's Wife

Written and directed by T. J. Elliott

Presented by Knowledge Workings Theater LLC at the 36th Street Theatre

312 W 36th St., 3rd. Fl.

September 21-October 8, 2023

Jester (Steve Weatherbee) entreats Wife (Emma Taylor Miller) to join his scheme while Stranger (Xander Jackson) observes. Photo by Marjorie P. Elliott
When we tell stories, what forces shape not only which stories we choose to tell but also who the protagonists are and who ends up relegated to the margins? The Jester's Wife, written and directed by T. J. Elliott and billed as a Dark Ages comedy, raises such questions by, in a Stoppard-esque move, approaching the story of medieval Irish martyr St. Dymphna by decentering Dymphna herself in favor of those who would normally play at best supporting roles in the tale. This shift foregrounds reflections on gender, religion, power, and art, all wrapped in a hilarious production that would make the titular jester–and his wife–proud.
Wife (Emma Taylor Miller) and Jester (Steve Weatherbee) share a laugh despite the danger of beheading. Photo by Marjorie P. Elliott
After a prologue that briefly recounts the story of Dymphna–who (the story goes) was martyred, along with her confessor, Father Gerebernus, who was also made a saint, for fleeing the incestuous attentions of her widowed father, King Damon, around the year 800–The Jester's Wife begins its main action just after Dympha's death. Rather upset at having just witnessed a pair of bloody beheadings, the Jester (Steve Weatherbee) who had been traveling with her (and who appears, with his wife, in a 16th-century altar painting) finds refuge in a cave. Before too long, he is joined by his wife (Emma Taylor Miller), who is not particularly happy that he ran away from the scene of the killings without knowing what happened to her and without fighting back in any way. The Jester notes, among other defenses, that the Church's much admired martyrs don't tend to go down fighting. He also observes that his profession has not exactly outfitted him for battle; neither does the vocation of his wife, who is a healer and midwife, offer her much to combat the sharp swords of Damon's men, but it does put her under suspicion of being a witch. (A fool can be seen as a source of truth[s], but a midwife's knowledge is dangerous.) Nevertheless, she regrets not laying down her life for Dymphna, even as she admits, in a humanizing moment, that Dymphna could be annoying. As Damon's men continue to present a looming threat outside of the cave (the set, with its dual circular openings, one the cave mouth, suggests something between a riff on a proscenium and on a diorama), the Jester and his wife debate not only what they should have done but also, and more urgently, what they should do next. Eventually, their situation is complicated by the unexpected arrival of a stranger (Xander Jackson); and, even later, by the Jester's realization that recent events, or a version of them (competing narratives are, naturally, already coalescing), would make a good story–and maybe a play.
Stranger (Xander Jackson) remembers that he knows how to kill people while Jester (Steve Weatherbee) and Wife (Emma Taylor Miller) watch. Photo by Marjorie P. Elliott
The Jester doesn't think that others would be interested in people they don't care about (non-princesses, for example) doing nothing, while his wife, subject herself to a less flattering type of mythologizing than Dymphna undergoes, doesn't understand why storytellers would want to glorify virginity and dying and bad men acting badly, questions that clearly haven't lost any relevance to contemporary culture–which also applies to their dispute over whether all of this was the Devil's plan, or God's, and whether either of those claims holds up to logical scrutiny. The play's meta threads fruitfully interlace with its other concerns, and it entertainingly evokes older forms of drama in concert with comedy of a contemporary flavor. Weatherbee and Miller make a fantastic quibbling couple, each, in different ways, sympathetic and witty and dedicated to his or her craft, and Jackson brings marvelous physicality and humor to the Stranger, in whom the characteristics of a somewhat skittish innocent bump up against rather more fearsome aspects of his past and personality. The Jester may ultimately undermine his own claim that jesting is a vehicle for conveying truth in an appealing way, but the delightful Jester's Wife certainly makes good on that potential.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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