The Plymouth pilgrims have shucked off their Thanksgiving peacefulness and are going for the jugular. Just ask King Philip, the titular character of Daniel Glenn’s new play, King Philip’s Head Is Still On That Pike Just Down the Road. Or, actually, you can’t ask him because, as you might guess from the title, King Philip has been decapitated by the time the play begins. The Colony’s town council is meeting to discuss any business other than the head ceremoniously placed on the pike, but one member, Goodman Good, feels a calling to show respect to the deceased and get the head down. The year is 1677, but Glenn’s portrait of governmental deadlock is not a far cry from 2019.
Though most of the characters are middle-aged or elderly white men, Glenn has them portrayed by female-identifying actors in a range of age and ethnicity. Like Clubbed Thumb’s previous work, Men on Boats, telling a story that centers on machismo with non-male bodies serves to highlight and lampoon the foibles of masculinity. At the center of Glenn’s play is the showdown between Goodman Good and Goodman Brown (whom Glenn describes as “the honcho of the council”) over the topic of King Philip’s head. It becomes a test of will that extends through their entire lives: the last section of the play speeds through their future as Brown and Good attempt to outlive each other under King Philip’s severed skull. Tonally, the back and forth between the two recalls not so much The Odd Couple as another Jack Lemmon-Walter Matthau vehicle, Grumpy Old Men, only more vicious. And with higher stakes.
King Philip, it must be noted, is not actually a king, or named Philip. That is a mocking moniker bestowed on the leader of the Pokanoket forces. His actual name is Metacom, and he is based on the real chief of the Wampanoag people who was beheaded in 1676 as an act of retaliation after the Wampanoag lost the war to stop the Puritans from expanding across their land. In the play, Brown is proud of King Philip’s head on the pike because it is a symbol of his dominance over the people who killed his family. Good does not see himself as superior to the other race; he sees the barbarism in displaying a man’s severed head as a trophy.
The play uses these opposing viewpoints to look at how a government treats people who are considered “other”: the minorities who live outside a society that is primarily white, male, and Protestant. In this case, it is the white settlers who have usurped the land belonging to the Wampanoag and, in displacing them, have othered and dominated them. In a potent exchange late in the play, Brown responds to Good’s defense of Metacom’s people by asking him, “Do you want to be an Indian?” Good concedes that he would accept being an Indian if that is how he was born, but he is “more accustomed” to his privilege as a white man. Good’s dedication to his cause is further depleted when his wife suggests that their lack of children is metaphysically tied to his unending advocacy for the removal of Metacom’s head. She urges him not to bring up the topic and, for a while, his silence pays off: his wife bears two children. With his personal goals achieved, he sacrifices his goal for Metacom, again putting his privilege first.
Taking Good to stand in for we contemporary liberals who decry the government for the infinite list of objectionable deeds that define this administration and the Republican party, Glenn is calling out our hypocrisy. Good’s hand-raising is our posting on social media about concentration camps on our Southern border, but not actually doing something about it because we have the privilege not to. The silence of the other town council members who agree with Good, but choose not to make waves are the hundreds of congresspeople who allow the president’s rhetoric to go unchallenged, even though they know it’s wrong. There is racism ingrained in Brown and Good’s debate just as America elected a racist tyrant to its highest office.
The miraculous thing about Glenn’s play, though, is that he tackles all of this in what is, for all intents and purposes, a raucous comedy. Directed with period-blurring winks by Caitlyn Ryan O’Connell, the play is filled with outlandish physical and verbal humor. The sparring between Brown and Good is comedic on the surface, but what simmers under it is fear and heartbreak and bloodthirstiness. With the stakes so high for these characters, but the dialogue so frivolous, it sets up a juxtaposition that underscores every word. We’re laughing because Brown’s arguments are presented as absurd, but to him, they’re gospel.
Jennifer Ikeda plays Brown like a son in his father’s clothes. There’s a lot of pomposity, there’s a lot of smug righteousness, there’s a lot of trying to prove himself. Ikeda leans into the more fearsome aspects of Brown’s personality, snarling her way through the arguments, using the loudness and the authority of Brown’s voice to override any opposition. Crystal Finn plays Good with an eye-popping, stressed-face-twisting neuroticism. Finn has an innate ability to externalize a character’s interior anguish. As an actor, she thinks better than anyone; you can see the cogs turn and turn and snag and turn.
The final section of the play allows these two to strip away the zaniness and focus on the core of their characters. All the way downstage, they sit on a bench and go at each other until there’s nothing left. They are both zapped of their anger, of their need to fight, but they’re still pushing at it. Something happens to Good, though, and to see Finn drain herself of all that has filled her up for the preceding seventy minutes is bone-chilling. She sits on the bench like a shadow of herself, hollow and aching. King Philip’s Head Is Still On That Pike Just Down the Road gives you the laughs and then grabs them all back and leaves you to think about what was so funny in the first place.