Reading someone’s diary is like time traveling, in its most intimate sense. In Big Dance Theater’s 17c, we go on a private tour in Restoration England, through Samuel Pepys’ “pensieve,” that is his decade long diary.
Pepys was a Navy guy. Although his position entailed zero sailing (an activity you might consider upon hearing the word Navy), he was nevertheless a man of certain influence. Translate that to 21st century vernacular, he had a pretty high clout score. What immortalized him (specifically, a decade of his life), was his diary, detailing everything from his relationship with his wife, Elizabeth, his business affairs (as well as personal ones), to his bodily functions.
The performers take on the part of Pepys in rotation. Cynthia Hopkins (donning Pepys’ black curly wig) is the first to open up the book holding the condensed Pepys, and she does so with affectionate mockery and nonchalance, explaining to the audience what “yard” meant in Pepys day. One audience member guessed without much difficulty that the word was a euphemism for penis. She also points out that Pepys, of course, never meant for those diary entries to see the light of day.
Around the sparse, open stage, racks of costumes and instruments are visible, as the rest of the ensemble congregate with an almost deliberately indifferent attitude, setting the tone for the piece. It’s a fusion of styles, a harmony of contradictions: Joanne Howard’s set is both minimalistic and lavish, with elements of the ornate Restoration style furniture, but also the sleekness of post modernism. Oana Botez’s costumes look like what might have happened if Gucci did a collection for American Apparel, glossy fabrics in generously saturated colors beneath Joe Levasseur’s vibrant lighting.
Although the slice-of-life stories belong to the 17th century and take place around Pepys’ London flat, the production maintains a level of self-awareness and ensures that the audience is never submerged in either the past or the present. In fact, Pepys’ writing is for the most part treated here with a sort of academic fascination and a taste for whimsy, and is translated into contemporary conventions. Aaron Mattocks (as Sam) and Elizabeth DeMent (as Elizabeth) create an angular yet nevertheless sensual duet that takes on a level of humor as two overhead monitors display comments on what’s happening on stage. At one point the text reads, “They are dancing about their relationship” (Jeff Larson’s video design).
Beyond the (at times borderline snarky) texts, DeMent and Kourtney Rutherford serve as a pair of on-line, fan-girl commentators. Their academic thoroughness is somewhat eclipsed by their YouTube Vlogger personas, complete with hipster-chic black framed glasses. Their thoroughly modern and distinctly millennial voices review the ancient and extremely long book with the feigned disinterest that usually masques infatuation, and they paint a portrait of Sam Pepys as the mega over-sharer of personal details, way before Lord Byron had any business with public self promotion.
Annie-B Parson, who created the show and directs, also drew on contemporaries of Pepys’ to contextualize the time period, treating it as an object under a microscope. Margaret Cavendish’s never produced feminist play, “Convent of Pleasure,” is used as a play within the play. It centers on a heroine who falls in love with a foreign princess. “Does the gender binary describe matters of the heart?” asks the performer who’s now both in the 17th and the 21st centuries.
We hit pause on whimsy when Paul Lazar’s Pepys reads from the diary with an earnestness that’s rare in this production. Pepys’ affairs with Deborah Willet (Elizabeth’s servant, no less), as well as various other women, begin to surface. “Alone with her and against her struggle, I did what I wanted but not to my satisfaction.” The eloquently phrased confession echoes with its present day raunchy American cousin: “I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there”¦ grab them by the pussy.” Amidst the many sexual harassment allegations against powerful men, it’s unsettling to see how this problem is as old as time. Yet at the same time, it also makes me hopeful: the victims today won’t have to wait four centuries for justice.
17c is an aesthetically striking production with commendable qualities in both its physical and literary aspects. There are moments when it gets overly enigmatic and gimmicky, but within just above an hour’s time, it manages to create a multi-dimensional profile of the life and times of Samuel Pepys, and you’ll definitely want to dig into his diaries just out of curiosity. (The whole thing is available at pepysdiary.com by the way; the website is also the source of the annotator comments, which DeMent and Rutherford quote.)
Hopkins returns to comment on the modest looking journal that contains relics of time. “You don’t know if it’s really old or somebody wrote it in the 80s,” she says, and the warm twang of her positively enchanting voice (think the midpoint of Sinead O’Connor and Enya) is like a tread that connects the past and the very present.
Another intrigue explored in 17c is reading Pepys’ diaries today, or hearing them onstage through a modern setting. They don’t appear out of place even when placed side by side with the culture of over sharing on social media; the privacy of a man between the bound covers is as fragile as the invisibility of a tweet, or a Facebook status update amongst billions of strangers.
There’s also the relevance of the silenced female voice. In possibly the most beautifully staged moment of the production, DeMent’s ethereal dance as Elizabeth Pepys while lying horizontal on stage is projected onto the backdrop, making it appear as if she’s drifting midair behind a gridded screen that looks like a cage, her colored duster pulsating like a jellyfish. I thought of the woman behind the yellow wallpaper and Virginia Wolfe in her private, sacred room, unheard, but with dignity.