Volume 18 • Issue 48 | April 14 - 20, 2006

Nicole Raphael and Margo Passalaqua as the Screen Children in Wolfpit.

In ‘Wolfpit,’ the children come in green clothing

By Jerry Tallmer

The son of Bessie Bighead and Mrs. Cherry Owen has brought two green children of the 12th century into the world of the 21st century in a theater three flights up on Manhattan’s West 43rd Street. The ghost of Jean Cocteau hovers in the wings.

Translation:

“Wolfpit,” a play by Glyn Maxwell, is in a world premiere through May 6 at Theatre Three, 311 West 43rd Street. It tells of the two green-skinned children, a boy and a girl, who, starving, and speaking no recognizable language, turned up mysteriously in a field at harvest time in a tiny 12th-century farm village in Suffolk, England. The boy died. The girl lived. Everything changed.

Two people who will be coming to see the show are Mr. and Mrs. James Maxwell of Welwyn Garden City, England. They are playwright/poet Maxwell’s parents.

His mother in her own theatrical right, under her Welsh birth-name, Buddug-Nail Powell – Buddug is pronounced Bizzech, says her son — played the dual roles of Bessie Bighead and Mrs. Cherry Owen in another world premiere, a rather historic one, that of Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood” for the BBC in 1954. She played the same two roles in its 1957 Broadway premiere at the now flattened Henry Miller’s Theatre, not quite as far west on 43rd Street.

“She was sure it was going to be a failure here. Then they spotted Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich in the first-night audience.”

And Jean Cocteau?

Well, this is a production by the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, and the two prime founders of that company are actors Craig Smith and Elise Stone, husband and wife, longtime mainstays of the Jean Cocteau Repertory on the Bowery.

He had been with the Cocteau since 1973, she since 1984. He had every sort of role in an estimated 200 Cocteau productions, she — a smasher from way back — was in something like 100, mostly as leading lady. One doesn’t easily forget her “Mother Courage,” among much else.

The Cocteau, under new management, chose to leave Craig and Elise behind, a couple of years ago, or not to make them wish to stay, and now the Cocteau Rep is under yet another management…

“The Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, that’s us,” said Elise Stone one morning last week. It was she who, scouting for new plays and new playwrights, came across a New York Fringe Festival script of “Lifeblood,” a play about Mary Stuart by Glyn Maxwell. She put out feelers, and one day discovered an email in her inbox — “Hi, Elise, what’s up?” — from the very man.

This is the second play of Maxwell’s they’ve done on 43rd Street. The first, this past winter, was “Broken Journey,” a “Rashomon” retold in terms of a young couple in today’s England whose car breaks down as they’re returning from a ball, then a biker comes along — and everybody thereafter has a different story to tell. It required getting half a car three flights up — a three-day effort by freight elevator.

“When I wrote that play in 1994,” says Maxwell — who lives in New York, is an E.M. Forster prizewinner, has taught at Columbia and Princeton, now teaches at NYU — “I didn’t have any sense of theater. You just scribble down: ‘Half a car,’ and ten years later it actually has to happen. Coming from Britain,” he genially adds, “I didn’t expect a theater three flights up.”

It was also in 1994 that a director named Greg Duran handed Maxwell a couple of pages from the 12th-century writings of a couple of monks, William of Newburgh and Ralph of Coggeshall, that tell in separate but similar ways of the “wondrous thing [that] happened in Suffolk at St. Mary Woolpit” — the emergence from or near a wolfpit, during harvest, of “two children, male and female, green in the whole body and of strange hue … ”

“Greg — he’s now a big director with the Royal Shakespeare Company — said: ‘Why don’t you have a crack at this?’ ”

Woolpit, the original name of which, in Roman times, was apparently Wolfpit, is a coastal town in the flatlands of East Anglia, northeast of London. Duran and Maxwell went there to have a look, and sure enough, found a sign on the village green — “sort of like a pub sign” — boasting about the green childen.

Smith and Stone — sounds like a vaudeville team — say that playwright Maxwell is “oh, very much indeed” a participant in rehearsals of his stuff, “making sure that his words come out right, and they’re not easy words to get right.”

Indeed they’re not. Each character has a separate, distinct, terse, flat or flavorful way of speaking, and as Craig Smith puts it, “the syntax is very particular.” He and Elise appear in it, of course, along with Cocteau alumni John Lenartz, Joe Menino, Angela Madden, and Jason Crowl, plus new recruits Jonathan Tindle, Jason O’Connell, Nicole Raphael (as the green girl), and Margo Passalaqua (as the green boy).

Companions also from the Cocteau days are Ellen Mandel, who composed the “Wolfpit” music, and former Cocteau artistic director Robert Hupp, who directs this show. Smith and Stone have hopes of working on future projects with him and Cocteau Rep founder Eve Adamson — the woman who, when tall, gangly, hayseedy Craig Smith showed up at her storefront door on Bond Street 35 years ago, handed him a broom and said: “Go to work.”

He has supported himself over the years as senior editor at Elsevier, a medical publishing house. Elise freelances there.
The green girl and the green boy — how do you make them green?

“Makeup.”

Ask a silly question…

Mr. and Mrs. Craig Smith do not have any green children,, but they do have three who are brown and quite beautiful: Kerem, 10, Tesfahun, 9, and Hakima, 7, all originally from Ethiopia.

“Wolfpit” is in rotating repertory at Theatre Three with “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” a comedy smash over many Off-Broadway years. The Phoenix Ensemble produces it, but Craig and Elise aren’t in it.

“Producing two shows and being in one and raising three kids is enough,” says Elise Stone. The Phoenix was a bird that, undying, rose eternally from the ashes …
 
WOLFPIT. By Glyn Maxwell. Directed by Robert Hupp. A Phoenix Theatre Ensemble production in repertory with “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged),” through May 6 at Theatre Three, 311 West 43rd Street, (212) 352-3101.


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