Big Dance Theater: 17c
photo by Ian Douglas
Big Dance Theater's 17c
Thursday, Nov. 9 & Friday, Nov. 10
UNC's Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill
, Big Dance Theater’s newest production
, begins before the house lights go down. A woman in a curly seventeenth-century wig stands before the audience and gives a little background on what’s coming up. She explains that the protagonist and main subject of the show is Samuel Pepys, that meticulous English diarist who, between 1660 and 1669, recorded just about everything that happened to him for his own private use.
“I enjoyed my wife; my yard was stiff,” the performer reads from one of the days chronicled in the journal. Then she asks if anyone in the audience wants to guess what “yard” refers to.
No one does: the question is rhetorical; the answer is obvious. But she’s duly made the point that Sam—as he’s called in the show—wasn’t too different from us. He wrote obsessively about his experiences large and small (work, bathroom habits, religious inspiration or lack thereof) but was inevitably the starring character in his story, much like the social media-obsessed folks of today.
Once the lights go down, 17c
continues to draw comparisons between the current era and the one Pepys inhabited. Video screens blare instructions (“close your eyes”) in neon pink while characters pull on period-appropriate bodices and elaborate skirts; women representing online commentators banter about Pepys while others act out dramas from his writings.
The dichotomies are novel and intriguing, but they also keep the production on a superficial level. Early on, one of the characters speaks to Pepys’s disappointment that his wife, Bess, has failed to conceive a child, but that level of emotionality doesn’t play a starring role—not for a while, at least. First, the show flirts with video, disco music, a vignette with Bess and a dancing master who visited the house, and a play within a play featuring the work of seventeenth-century playwright Margaret Cavendish. The range of sources and the mix of mediums give the show dynamism, but they provide no real sense of who Pepys really was—the part of him that’s genuinely timeless and universal.
Eventually, around the middle of the show, that limitation finally shifts. As Pepys, Big Dance Theater codirector Paul Lazar slouches in a wing chair and tells the story—partially verbatim from the diary, partially paraphrased—of his affair with a housemaid and his attachment to her, and his wife’s subsequent disquiet. Big Dance’s hallmark technique is to convey meaning through abstraction, rather than clearly spelling out ideas and emotions. So it’s ironic that this section is the most narrative segment of the show—and the most effective. Some of that owes to Lazar’s talent in creating an idiosyncratic Pepys who feels real, but part is due to the emotion that the diarist’s words, unadorned, convey.
That deeper vibe colors the rest of the production, despite some rather meaningless discussion from the commentors and an anomalous section of text whose significance is unclear. In the end, Bess dies of a fever, and Pepys, it seems, goes to pieces. And that’s when it becomes clear: this was a love story. Of course. What storyline could be more timeless, linking humanity throughout eras? It wasn’t obvious at first—and one gets the impression that it wasn’t always apparent to Pepys, either.