'Plaint of the Playwright

'Plaint of the Playwright

[ Tuesday, March 26, 2002 ]

Just got an email from Buck about Callen Harty's wonderful show, "Judge."

Here's the email, and below that are a few comments I have about the show and why it worked for me.

I'm sending this message to just about every theatre person I know in Madison. It's to tell you about the latest Broom Street play, Callen Harty's "Judge," which is playing for two more weekends (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 8pm) through April 7.

I (to my shame) waited until Week 4, and I wish I had gone sooner so that I could have started spreading the word. This is an incredible play, centered around a staggering performance by Brian Wild. More on that later.

You may already be familiar with the real-life story that inspired the plot. In Lafayette County in 1985, Daniel McDonald, the sitting judge, murdered a lawyer in the county seat of Darlington shortly after McDonald had been defeated in his re-election bid. The lawyer he murdered was the law partner of the man who had defeated McDonald for the judgeship. This play is only loosely based on the sensational Lafayette County events (and I'm not telling whether it ends the same way!) - Callen used only the framework of the case to build an essay on sanity, responsibility, the justice system, and the way we "judge," and are judged by, others and ourselves.

This may sound deadly dull--and in truth, the subject matter is considerably heavier than the standard-issue Broom Street play. But don't let it scare you away. For one thing, I submitted the play to my rigorous Watch Test, which consists of noting how long it went before I checked my watch. As a matter of comparison, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" scored 1 hour and 7 minutes (about a third of the movie), which I consider a narrow success - and I ended up loving the movie, but I'm the first to admit there were draggy passages. "Judge" scored 1 hour and 30 minutes, or more than three-quarters of the entire piece. That should tell you something: that even with my attention span being what it is, I was so riveted that it took that long for my mind to wander for even a few seconds at a time.

Brian Wild is Judge Folks. We are never told his first name, but it's just as well, since after 20-plus years on the bench, he treats "Judge" as his de facto first name anyway. He has invested his entire identity in his self-declared role as a giver of justice (while his family life, and any outside interests he may once have had, have slipped away), and when he is thrown from his "rightful" place in the world, he goes to pieces. We see him spiralling into madness, bit by bit, prevented by his own pride and rage from stopping himself. He reaches out for help, but the well-meaning people around him - his clinging wife (Christine Callsen), "idiot brother" (J. Schwartz), and sympathetic priest (Scott Feiner) - are either too myopic, or too cowed by his domineering ways, to give him the help he needs. Finally he focuses his rage on his victorious opponent and the opponent's law partner (Josh Thomas and Josh Hobson), with deadly results. We then see a trial, and the aftermath of the trial, in which everything we have seen is called into question, and we are made to doubt (however slimly) the certainty of the judgements we ourselves have made.

It's powerful and thought-provoking stuff, to be sure, and as I said, the heart of the play is Brian Wild's performance as the Judge. He goes to a very scary place here, taking us on a terrifying journey into one man's darkest secret soul. I've never seen Brian act with such fearsome intensity before (though I think I recognize bits of his Gene Roddenberry from "I Am Star Trek," here and there), and I take my hat off to him. It's something you don't want to miss. He is ably assisted by Scott Feiner, as the priest who comes closer than anyone else to glimpsing how deep Folks' darkness reaches (Feiner also has an effective smaller role as a terrified young farmhand who witnesses the crime); by Callsen and Schwartz as Folks' family members, who have clearly lived in terror of him for decades. Then there are Thomas and Hobson as two of the many lawyers who've been waiting years to get judicial tyrant Folks off the bench; Bob Moccero as the wise small-town news editor who represents the "way you go about things" in a small town, and Sparky as the cub reporter; John Sable as the sheriff who finds himself in over his head; Dana Pellebon as the professional prosecutor and Mark Gapen as a feisty young defender, and Karl Reinhardt (last seen as the Holy Spirit in "Tales for a New Millennium") as various townspeople.

In addition, the eerie sound design (by Brian Wild) and dramatic lighting design (by Luke Delwiche) are both impeccable: this is one of the smoothest, most professional-looking shows I've seen at BST. Callen once again proves his mastery of direction, keeping the events moving at a fast clip, while never seeming too rushed to be unfolding in a sleepy little town. Things slow down, by necessity, once the action moves into the static venue of the courtroom (which is, I believe, the point at which I finally checked my watch) - but by then, you're hooked. I wish Callen would get it published so that it can be performed around the country. It's that good.

Anyway, you have six more chances. Tickets are $7 (at the door only). Broom Street Theatre is located at 1119 Williamson Street. Performances are Fridays through Sundays at 8pm for the next two weekends, through April 7. Doors open at 7:45.

Go see it!

"Judge," in many ways, is about self-identity. Folks, at the beginning of the show, honestly believes that he is a great guy, looked at with reverance. He is a judge, and you'd think from the way he acts that he aimed for that position specifically for the guaranteed respect that's supposed to come with it.

When the votes come in, it's as if the whole town--his whole world--collectively tells him "no."

It's noteworthy that when the people in his family who love him--his wife, his brother--try to reassure him, he responds furiously and violently towards them. Of course they think he should have won--they love him. It's the other people--the ones who don't love him--that he wants to elect him.

And it's not about approval. It's about the simple acceptance that he is the best man for the job--even from his enemies.

But he's not elected.

And where does that leave him?

"Judge," by the way, is not about the murder itself. The violence is handled offstage, and only the emotions are dealt with.

What "Judge" really covers is an area I'd never considered: The time period where a person realizes they are a murderer.

And sometimes this can occur before they've killed anyone.

There is such rage in Folks over the election, because the people have stolen from him his identity.

Folks, in some ways, decides to become a murderer because he sees precious little vocational choice.

Which is not to say he marches into it willingly. He makes an attempt to see a priest about his urges--but keeps stopping himself before he can do anything that would prevent him from going on with it.

And here's where we get our most interesting conflict: Folks has to accept that this is what he wants.

And even when he commits the murder, it doesn't seem real enough.

Later, at his own trial, he becomes even more enraged--his lawyer starts making the case into something that's not him.

How can he be a judge when everyone seems to be judging him?

Watch the last scenes in the show, and consider Wild's performance. Because what he's playing is Folks' own judgement...on himself.

posted by Rob on 9:33 AM | link



Post a Comment