Maybe there's a big theater audience ready to go medieval. Certainly there are enough people out there to keep the Renaissance Festival in turkey legs and make Medieval Times a successful restaurant chain. Spamalot made a hit Broadway musical out of the King Arthur mythos, although it probably relied more on the audience's familiarity with cult movies than its knowledge of English history.
Still, for Theatre Decatur to stage Aethelred the Unready: The Worst King Ever seems, in its way, about as risky as an underfunded English army trying to take on a Viking horde, a prospect faced by the title character. Playwright Marki Shalloe disrespectfully depicts King Aethelred, who (mis)ruled England from about 978 to 1016 A.D., not counting the months he was deposed. Shalloe approaches Aethelred with her signature cleverness and enthusiasm for research, but "unready" seems entirely too apt a description for the Theatre Decatur production.
The play begins when chanting monks take the stage, much like Spamalot's hooded penitents whacking themselves with boards. A prologue depicts Aethelred's unpromising baptism – he defecates in the font – while the monks whisper Latinate asides such as "infinitum tedium" during the droning ceremony.
As a teenager, Aethelred (Adam Johnson) becomes the rightful ruler when his mother, Aelfthryth (Carrie Walrond), murders his half-brother King Edward (Lon Ward Abrams). Edward's ghost turns out to be a major character, haunting Aethelred, giving him the inside scoop from beyond the grave and demanding his death be avenged. The Hamlet satire is entirely intentional, and, compared with Hamlet's towering intellect, Aethelred seems especially unfit for a king.
He spends much of the play simply trying to get people to acknowledge his rule. Trying to enter Corfe Castle and ascend the throne, Aethelred gets thwarted by Sir Robert (Stephen Banks), a cockney-accented knight so far out of favor that he must rake the castle moat, filled with "excretia." Aethelred finds an even more threatening figure in Sweyn the Forkbeard (Kent Igleheart), a Viking who boasts of his prowess in battle and his "well-turned leg."
With lines such as, "You never invite me to the good beheadings," Aethelred the Unready plays like an extended Monty Python sketch, or maybe Mel Brooks' obscure Robin Hood TV sitcom, "When Things Were Rotten." Drawing its story from little-known history, however, Theatre Decatur's production, directed by Sonny Goff, lacks the snappy pace and confident delivery the material calls for. Abrams and Igleheart give particularly vague performances, given their commanding comedic roles. The design lacks focus as well, featuring both an impressively realistic castle backdrop and phony-looking blades unworthy of a high school play.
At least Johnson and Banks have the volleying banter of a credible comedy team (not to mention adequate English accents). Shalloe's playful wit frequently reveals itself, such as in Robert and Sweyn's debate over the advantages of paganism vs. Christianity (Christmas is a big selling point). Nevertheless, the playwright seems more interested in shtick with the crabby ghost and insubordinate servants than in really digging into the mistakes and character flaws that make Aethelred, in the play's catchy subtitle, "the worst king ever." As a personality, Aethelred's merely a ninny and a whiner, and his actual reign unfolds in fast-forward fashion that's difficult to follow.
Aethelred the Unready nevertheless represents continued daring from Theatre Decatur, which, since changing its name from Neighborhood Playhouse last year, has moved outside its comfort zone in its choice of material while forging alliances with local playwrights. Aethelred overlaps with Theatre Decatur's Drama Queens Festival at its smaller Atelier Theatre from April 13-May 20. The festival features three plays by local female playwrights: Pamela Turner's Voices Deux, Letitia Sweitzer's The Last Good Deed and Shalloe's one-man play Stieglitz (a companion to her one-woman Georgia O'Keeffe play, recently produced by Theatre Decatur).