The audience survey for Savage Umbrella’s production of The Ravagers asks the audience to describe the play in one word. That’s damn near impossible. But I could tackle that question one word at a time.
The Ravagers is all those things and more. The Ravagers is another of those rare ensemble-created works that really works. Given that it’s just as epic a story as it is an epic ensemble—22 actors in all—the chances for it to go off the rails only increase. The success of The Ravagers, despite the high degree of difficulty, only makes it that much more impressive.
“My heart is pounding in my chest but not for joy.”
The one recurring reminder that The Ravagers is based on the ancient Greek tragedy The Suppliants by Aeschylus is the nomenclature, pulled from another time and place than our own (all supremely resistant to spell-check programs). Otherwise, the artists of Savage Umbrella have made the story very much their own, and a compelling parable for the times in which we now live. In fact, I was joking to my theatergoing companion at intermission that this could be seen as a tale about the dangers of inept home-schooling and “abstinence only” sex education.
“They have never known extravagance, but they have never known want.”
Two brothers rule two adjacent kingdoms, separated by a wall. Aegyptus (Bob Hammel) has been blessed with 50 sons. Danaus (Scott Keely) has been blessed with 50 daughters. Aegyptus has encouraged his sons to travel for their education, to ask questions, to embrace the many wonders life has to offer. Danaus has taken a very different route.
“Your sons are not horses, they are wolves.”
Danaus does not allow his daughters to leave their compound. They have a more spartan way of life, bounded by a routine of rest, simple food, limited lessons, sewing, exercise, and prayer which fills their days. Danaus visits the girls as a group each day and chooses one to spend a moment with, and impart some nugget of wisdom while the other girls look on enviously. Most of Danaus’ conversation is reserved for his eldest daughter Hypermnestra (Laura Leffler-McCabe), who he has put in charge of the other daughters. She reports to him, and disciplines her sisters on her father’s behalf. The nine wives who bore Danaus these daughters have not lived to watch them grow.
“Her blood stopped, and then I was born.”
But Hypermnestra has a secret. She has been conversing through the wall between the kingdoms with a young man on the other side. They cannot see or hear one another. They can only exchange notes. The young man Lynceus (Carl Atiya Swanson) tells Hypermnestra of the outside world. This forbidden relationship will end up being the salvation of…
…in order not to be too much of a spoiler, let’s just say, the salvation of at least half of the cast of characters. This story has a staggeringly high body count.
“The rains have come. The women are ready.”
For once the youngest of the daughters has come of age, it is time for a mass wedding ceremony, joining the two households and two kingdoms. (We’ll lay aside for the moment that they’re basically all first cousins because…well, the Greek gods all intermarried, so why shouldn’t mortals?)
“Find a book about the human body. Find a book about philosophy.”
Aegyptus sees this group marriage as the pinnacle of their work as parents. Danaus takes a dimmer view, seeing what little power and control he has being stripped away from him. So he warns the daughters of the dangers of men, conjuring visions of them as ravenous wolves bent on nothing but their own pleasure, and the destruction of the daughters’ way of life. In fact, rather than submitting to this set of arranged marriages, Danaus arms his daughters with knives, and tells them they must kill their newly minted husbands on their wedding night. The young women, of course, are ready to comply. After all, father just has their best interests at heart. He is the source of all life and knowledge. Father knows best.
“With a smile on each face and a dagger behind each back, we shall welcome them. And the world will thank us.”
It’s a brilliant set-up. Every meeting between the newlywed couples after that is shot through with a sense of dread. Only one of the young men is even close to the monster of Danaus’s warnings. The sons are awkward, well-meaning fellows, each with their own quirks and endearing personalities. Each charms his new bride in his own way. Each blunders into accidental affronts to the daughters’ way of life because it seems so foreign. With each new meeting you wonder, will the bride go through with the murder? And if they choose to defy their father, then what? Is there any way of coming out on the other side of this and building a normal life? Ignorance isn’t bliss here. In fact, it’s the most dangerous weapon of all.
“We must fear these men until there are no men left to fear.”
This description runs the risk of making the play sound didactic and one-sided. Far from it. The audience gets immersed in Danaus’s and the daughters’ way of life and understands the father’s good intentions. It’s when those intentions are taken to illogical extremes that things start to come unglued. The Ravagers also manages the admirable trick of making the audience acutely feel the death of each person that falls. The death of both villains and innocents leaves us equally ambivalent. Violence isn’t glorified. It is shown for the horrible, messy thing that it is. There is no nobility or vindication in it.
“What is loyalty?”
“What is devotion?”
“What is obedience?”
“What is family?”
Everything works together so seamlessly, it’s hard to separate out the elements. But Abbee Warmboe (technical director, sets, lights and props) did an amazing job making the most of the old Hollywood Theater’s decrepit state and created a perfect environment in which this creepy world gets to live. The Hollywood Theater seems as tailor made for this tale as it was for Waiting for Godot this past summer. Layer on top of that the sound design and live mixing of Elliott Durko Lynch and the story gets a soundtrack so precisely timed and evocative it’s uncanny. The number of moving parts involved in this play migrating from auditorium to lobby and back again means a big shout-out is due to stage manager Claire Nadeau. And Sonya Berlovitz’s multi-purpose costumes, particularly for the growing army of daughters, get a surprising number of different looks simply from shifting around the small number of accessories in combination with the base outfit.
“A little fear is not a bad thing.”
While everyone in the ensemble does fine work, in addition to the other actors already noted above, I need to give a nod to three of the daughters in particular: Emily Dussault, Kathryn Fumie and Jami Jerome. Dussault as Arcadia is the most fervent of the true believers in her father’s cult. Fumie as Amymone is the strong-willed, free spirit who loudly proclaims her individuality and independence long before any of her other sisters are ready. Jerome as Polyxena has such an open mind and such enormous second thoughts about her father’s master plan that her young husband stands probably the best chance of getting out alive. As the hapless grooms of these three ladies, Adam Scarpello, Paul Rutledge and Russ Dugger (respectively) make it clear to the audience early on in the second act that, no matter how this wedding night plays out, it’s going to hurt.
“Tell me something about this big world.”
The Ravagers also pulls off the knotty problem of a happy ending that is nonetheless realistic. Much has been lost, but there is still hope. The survivors of the battle will continue to live on. What could have been either bleak and hopeless, or unrealistically upbeat, ends up striking a balance that makes you believe. It is an ending that fits this world, and these characters, perfectly. (In fact, the conclusion said so much so quickly with so little, it might even have ended sooner and we would have gotten the same sense of closure. But that’s a small quibble.) Writer/director Blake Bolan and writer/performer Laura Leffler-McCabe, collaborating with their company and cast, have done it again. Very highly recommended.