The Fresh Ink Theatre is one of the few companies in town dedicated to presenting new work by local playwrights. Moreover, Fresh Ink delivers topnotch production values so that a play like Patrick Gabridge’s FIRE ON EARTH (playing through Feb. 16th) is significantly enhanced by a stunning production.
Director Rebecca Bradshaw literally takes a page from Gabridge’s script when contraband copies of the Bible are disseminated to the British population against the edict of the church: Books fly from all corners and heights of the theater to land on stage like a hail storm. It’s a dazzling gesture which equals the impact William Tyndale’s translation had on 16th century England.
Translating Latin, Greek and Hebrew texts into English meant that anyone, not just the learned clergy, could read and interpret the Bible. This, you might say, put the fear of God into the Catholic Church. If common folk could commune directly with God, there would be no need for an intermediary. Torture and fire were the Church’s weapons, burning Bibles and people as fast as they could apprehend them.
Gabridge makes Tyndale (Bob Mussett) the fulcrum of his play to illustrate the religious and political ramifications of such a revolutionary literary achievement. We witness the Abu Ghraib of its day, run by a nasty Bishop (Brett Milanowski), who tortures Tyndale’s associates in a desperate attempt to stop the unstoppable.
We watch Tyndale painstakingly pour over word choices and constantly flee from pillar to post to avoid the authorities. (The History Channel featured a program on “secret societies” last month, including the Protestants who hid Tyndale and ensured the printing of his Bible.) In FIRE ON EARTH, Omar Robinson has the plum role of Tyndale’s printer/friend, Tewkesbury. He’s courageous. He’s angry. He’s hilarious. (Gabridge adopts the “Deadwood” trend in FIRE ON EARTH of speech peppered with invective --which I found highly entertaining.)
But Gabridge stops short of Tyndale’s demise and the dismantling of the church by Henry the Eighth, why I’m not sure. It would have been quite rewarding to see those bishops (Milanowski and Scot Colford) get their comeuppance. Instead Gabridge focuses on the drudgery of the work and the martyrdom of the associates (James Fay and Robinson) who sacrificed everything for the cause. End of play.
Ironically, history tells us that when King Henry read Tyndale’s treatise on Christian devotion, he had his rationale to break with the Roman Catholic Church and more importantly for him, to get a divorce. Alas, Tyndale had already been strangled and burned at the stake. Just two years later, his translation was sanctioned as the official Bible of the new Church of England! Why not a coda to tell audiences what happened?