King Death’s Wake puts audience to sleep

The year is 1348; a catastrophic plague is sweeping across Europe, killing one out of every three people on the seemingly cursed continent. Many fear the apocalypse is nigh, and that the Black Death, the highly contagious affliction, is God’s wrath upon a decadent society.

This historical backdrop serves as the setting for “In the Wake of King Death,” one of the Northern Kentucky University Department of Theatre and Dance’s productions for the Y.E.S. Festival. The play asks what would have happened if the daughter of Edward III, king of England, had survived her journey to Spain to marry that nation’s prince, thus uniting the two most powerful kingdoms of that era. Which begs the question: why should anyone care?

While this production does answer that query, it doesn’t do so in an entertaining manner and its plot holes simply beg more questions.

The story begins with the spoiled Princess Joan Plantagenet (Elizabeth Byland) awaking to a morbid scene: her retinue has succumbed to the Black Death. Only the lowly Spanish minstrel Gracias de Gyvill (Adam Bass) survived. A normal person might be tempted to grieve, but not Plantagenet. She musters her courage ? and seduces Gyvill. Right there.

The pair flee after one dying soldier finds them rocking the wagon and come upon the disgraced monk Thimblerig (Timothy Rhoades), who they find starving and chained. The two lovebirds free him and proceed to (once again) play doctor ? loudly. While they’re off “messing around,” Thimblerig recounts his attempts to kill King Death (Tony Springs), who shows up. Thimblerig fears for Plantagenet’s life, so he manages, through a game of chance, to make King Death spare Plantagenet’s from the plague.

This starts a chain reaction that will lead to the apocalypse, as the union of Spain and England will fulfill the Armageddon prophecy from the Bible. Now, it is up to Thimblerig to stop the marriage, which would bring about the end of the world.

The play’s gothic set, costumes and atmosphere nail the bull’s-eye with deadly accuracy. The lack of props only add to the macabre scene, emphasizing scarcity of both goods and hope in that era.

However, the ambiance is the crowning achievement in “King Death.”

Despite the obvious and successful attempts to recreate the grievous landscape of that time, all the actors’ accents are American, a country that wouldn’t exist for another 425 years!

As for the portrayals themselves, they are in dire need of work. Byland’s performance kills any audience empathy with Plantagenet. Her overly shrill voice and excessively egotistical attitude grate viewers. Her acting barely keeps her character alive in the audience’s imagination, rarely matching the emotions she should exhibit. While her character is ostensibly shallow, Byland’s portrayal should not have been.

However, Bass’ performance, for the most part, matches the sentimental, romantic Gyvill. But his minstrel can, at times, be unbelievably maudlin.

Rhoades delivers the best performance, perfectly portraying the range of emotions the golden-hearted scoundrel of a monk experienced. He almost flawlessly switches between anger, hope, despair and contentment.

But what puts the nail in the coffin on this play came from the plot, which is littered with holes. For example, in only a few minutes Plantagenet goes from ridiculing someone of “common” birth to embracing political correctness and equality. And though the script does have a respectable number of jokes scattered throughout, they can’t keep this play alive on their own.

“In the Wake of King Death” is a two-hour slough that puts its audience to sleep. It’s tolerable, but only because of Bass and Rhoades’ acting. Your world certainly won’t end if you pass on this production, so do yourself a favor and do something more enlivening this spring. And let “King Death” rest in peace.