Ye Bear & Ye Cubb at 59E59 through December 23. Tickets $25, includes free beer. (Also, each performance offers 3 onstage seats for $35, which includes audience participation.)
When Lenny Bruce was put on trial in New York for a 1964 stand-up comedy performance…
…at Greenwich Village’s Café Au Go Go that was said to go against the city’s public obscenity laws, he unsuccessfully pleaded for a chance to perform his act himself as evidence, rather than having the undercover detectives who were in attendance read from their cut-and-dry notes describing its contents.
But if Bruce and his lawyers were aware of a similar case involving the first-known English language play performed on this continent, they could have cited a precedent for letting the show go on in the courtroom.
Nothing is known of the script for William Darby’s Ye Bare and Ye Cubbe, which gave one performance in 1665 at Fowkes Tavern in Accomack County, Virginia. But what does remain is the record of a trial held when the playwright/actor and his two co-stars were charged with blasphemy after a sworn statement was submitted by playgoer Edward Martin. Before making a decision, the panel of judges had the actors perform the play in court, so they could see for themselves.
This obscure bit of American history that pre-dates the First Amendment serves as inspiration for No.11 Productions’ Ye Bear & Ye Cubb, a lively and fun tribute to the spirit of “the artists and the work that we don’t know and the names that never got written down.”
The fanciful fiction scripted by company members Ryan Buchanan, Julie Congress, Steven Conroy, Ryan Emmons (who also directs), Zachary Fithian and Forest VanDyke has a dryly skeptical tavernkeeper (Amara J. Brady) reluctantly agreeing to allow the persistent Darby (Steven Conroy) to rehearse and perform a play in her establishment, based on his wild dream about an encounter with a bear, as long as everyone keeps ordering beers.
The story bounces back and forth a bit between the creation and rehearsal of Darby’s play and the trial addressing charges made by the offended Martin (Joseph Medeiros). There’s a little audience participation encouraged (a little more for three audience members sitting onstage) with free beer offered to help lower inhibitions.
While Martin may be quite accurate in saying Darby’s play “celebrates paltry rhymes, cream pies and flatulence,” the program notes are also accurate in describing how even today Americans struggle with issues like, “Who gets to tell stories?” and “Who has the right to criticize how they’re told?”
But the moment that touched me deeply was when a character, addressing the contemporary audience, asked that we raise a glass to, “the artists that had a voice and never got heard” in hopes that, “even if we’re not remembered, our existence had impact.”
If you ever have a question about the caricatures gracing the walls at Sardi’s…
…I suggest you seek out Jeremy, the bartender who most often welcomes me at the upstairs lounge during my post-theatre imbibes.
He’s the go-to expert on important subjects like whether that’s Mary Tyler Moore or Eydie Gormé hanging on the pillar, which actors are drawn as characters they’ve portrayed and where to find anyone from Estelle Parsons to Billy Porter.
I’ve also seen him on one occasion sneak a portrait of a Sardi’s honoree from an obscure corner to a more prominent placement when said person happened to be visiting.
The latest evidence of Jeremy’s sense of whimsy can be found on the western wall of the bar, where the decades-old drawings of Brooks Atkinson and Lena Horne have been newly placed side by side.
Atkinson, who spent nearly forty years writing elegantly-worded drama reviews for the New York Times, is often regarded as the theatre journalist who most shaped the development of Broadway’s Golden Age, as well as supporting the emergence of Off-Broadway. Upon his retirement in 1960, Broadway’s Mansfield Theatre was renamed in his honor.
That honor was recently transferred to Lena Horne, a nationally beloved icon of American popular music, whose way with a lyric and a melody was just as elegant as Atkinson’s way with a typewriter. She became a Broadway star in 1957, leading the company of Jamaica for 555 performances, and probably would have been showcased in more stage musicals if it weren’t for the racism of her times. In 1981 she proved her enduring drawing power when her concert performance, The Lady And Her Music, intended to be a limited run, packed the Nederlander Theatre for over a year.
As seen below, it seems there’s no hard feelings between the two.