Ye Bare and Ye Cubb was the title of the first new English language play performed in the American colonies in 1665. This devised production, Ye Bear and Ye Cubb, imagines what that play contained (as no script exists) and follows the subsequent real-life lawsuit brought by a person who did not like the play.
As actor Steven Conroy says to us, stepping out of his colonial character, “We only know about these people because someone didn’t like the play.” In 1665, Edward Martin made out a criminal complaint and claimed the play was blasphemous and offensive. From that suit, we know it was written by William Darby and performed by Darby, Cornelius Watkinson, and Philip Howard in Accomack Virginia.
Ye Bear and Ye Cubb ends up musing on history, criticism, and the American theater. The company stages bits of a wild farce of an imagined version of Darby’s play with animal costumes (replete with the bear of the title) and rhyming couplets. While they also perform parts of the trial, including the troupe being asked to perform the play against as evidence.
Ye Bear and Ye Cubb tries to be both frivolous and serious. The play within the play is meant to be bad and ridiculous but also maybe political and subversive– a farting bear cub and the tyranny of a king sit side-by-side. But then the characters, outside the “silly” play, perform monologues and address issues of silencing women, the unnamed first Africans who were forced to come to America, and the importance of theater.
Frankly, the discussion about the unnamed struck me as powerful at first, but then my goodwill for that faded when the company seemed to try to be making parallels between that history and this play’s history. One of these things is not like the other. The erasure carries a very different weight in these two scenarios.
And this show is more about the American theater and the power that theater can hold. But they kept hammering that point until I started to question their thesis. I should be on your side but something about the self-reverential solemnity of their message did not convince me. Not all theater is noble, good, and worth remembering.
The show makes a villain of the man who sued these colonial players over the offense of their show. But in doing so it felt like they were expanding the circle even more broadly to make criticism itself the enemy. Sometimes Martin just felt like a whiny foible to be laughed at without much of a point behind his character or without a clear perspective on what he was railing about.
That said, the bear costume is impressive and the make-shift animal masks, headgear, and props give a proper hint of the characters of goose, mouse, and fawn. The moody lighting that illuminates the tavern set and carries us through the dream sequences worked well.
There’s a loose, playful spirit of “we’re putting on a show” and roping the audience into the production to make things “fun” here. Audience members on stage have to construct a costume (and are berated for their slowness) others in the gallery are witnesses at the trial. We were supposed to do a call and response upon a certain line, but we all kept forgetting it.
That might be the most telling thing of all. Sometimes your audience is on-board to go along for the scrappy, quirky ride you’ve designed. But here it all took effort and any sense of “we’re in it together” did not grow naturally from the show.