Hysterical “Miz Martha” on Historical Site with Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s Production

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GARRISON — Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival has stepped up to the moment and answered our times with the frequently hilarious, challenging and important “The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” by the very busy James Ijames.

The company frequently produces plays of historic import on the grounds of Boscobel House and Gardens built in 1804, four years after the play’s setting. We greatly enjoyed their “The General from America” by Richard Nelson about Benedict Arnold a few seasons ago. Boscobel House, behind the tent, can fill in for Mount Vernon, with its sweeping views of the Hudson and West Point.

It’s Christmas Eve, 1800, and the Mother of our Country is seriously ill in bed in her Mount Vernon home, cared for by her enslaved people who are extremely anxious attending her. They worry about her dying out of bed and soiling the good rugs, joke that her fart will knock her down the stairs killing her and are upbraided by Martha’s personal nurse, Ann Dandridge. Their dark humor’s edge of fear is explained by their insecurity at their own fate. The enslaved people of Mount Vernon’s freedom are invested in her. According to George Washington’s will, they will be freed upon her death.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

What follows is Martha slipping into a fever dream which is given a fantastic, palpable transition you feel down to your toes by director Taylor Reynolds. Full disclosure — I selected and directed the Capital Region premiere of this play in 2019 presented by the Black Theatre Troupe of Upstate, NY. The action of the play is the six Black members of her house holding her to account in wildly theatrical sequences for owning people. The scenes, among others, include a randy work song, tea with fellow Founding Mothers Abigail Adams, a game show hosted by King George III and Queen Charlotte and finally a trial. The question of the play is whether she will hold on to her property or set them free before her death.

The ensemble cast is terrific! They work exceptionally well together and they each have plenty of opportunities to grab the spotlight and shine and every single one of them has a radiant turn. Tyler Fauntleroy plays adolescent William, Ann’s son, who, when he rushes Martha’s bedroom, calls her his “Aunty Granny” because Ann was impregnated by Martha’s son, Jacky Custis. Fauntleroy never makes the child “cute” but rides an irrepressible energy and scary enthusiasm to great heights as he calls out America’s history in a long monologue of historical events from the Big Bang to O-O-O-Obama to “and, and, and…” horrors left unsaid.

Doll is played by Cyndii Johnson and Priscilla by Claudia Logan and they have fun scenes together dreaming of their mistress’s death and later playing Mrs. Adams and Ross. Johnson especially, makes the most of the great opportunities presented to her, to go from ribald glee at her prospect of freedom to an imperious Queen Charlotte and a prosecution lawyer who knows her way around the block.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

The men have even more fun, if that is possible. From a minstrel exaggeration scene to Ralph Adriel Johnson’s Sucky Boy who also plays a button-down defense lawyer. Brandon St. Clair plays Davy, who also assays a rootin’ tootin’ Thomas Jefferson, the King George game show host and a truly frightening Jacky Custis. All of the cast are excellent vocally creating many different characters.

Nance Williamson plays Martha and is reactive throughout much of the play until a final meltdown on the witness stand that is all the more powerful for all the ammo she has banked all night long. Her declaration asserted at the top of her lungs and atop the chair appropriately climaxes the play and Ms. Williamson handles it with dynamism and force.

Best of all is the Ann Dandridge of Britney Simpson, who does not get the wild antics of the dream’s hallucinations but as a half-sister of Martha’s (they have the same father, John Dandridge) becomes the closest enslaved person to the former First Lady, in charge of her care. When questioned about her strength, she replies with a wink, “Good genes.” She soothes Miz Martha, serves her soup, caresses her but also can hold her to account and when challenged deny her service, as she does in one chilling exchange refusing her a glass of spring water. Ms. Simpson is masterful throughout the evening and while we are confronted by and greatly entertained by the rest of the cast, the audience feels the play through Simpson’s Dandridge. I was very moved by her work.

Special mention must be made of the extraordinary costumes designed by Hahnji Jang. Beautiful, complementary with fresh, fun accents like the Declaration of Independence on Jefferson’s fringed vest’s back and Betsy Ross’s peace sign bottom they work with the play and up the ante on the satirical tactics of confronting injustice with irreverent pop culture. The props designed by Joshua Yocom also worked very well as artifacts of the past and contemporary comment.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Usually, Boscobel House and Gardens in Garrison, which is an hour and a half drive from Albany, is an ideal location to savor a pre-show picnic event. HVSF’s tent was dripping wet and we tiptoed through puddles to enter and circle around the open playing space. The elements of nature abetted the lighting design of Reza Behjat. As the rain poured down, we heard “I just think it’s not very nice to own people.” Just as dusk arrived, the skies cleared and Martha asked an open and cloudless night “You think I’m going to have to answer for this at judgement day?”

“The Most Spectacularly Lamentable Trial of Miz Martha Washington” holds a mirror up to America and the crimes and sins of its past, reveling in the outrageous freedom to call to account our most revered founders. It’s a fantastic play that challenges, amuses and shakes you to respond.

Through 7/30

Tickets available at hvshakespeare.org

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