The Vigil or The Guided Cradle
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 23, 2010
The Vigil or The Guided Cradle isn't a play with a subtitle; the title of this new provocative drama by Crystal Skillman comes from a medieval torture device that actually went by the two different names indicated (you can read a little about it and see a picture here). In the play, this particular instrument of torture is presented as a startling innovation in style; its inventor Ippolito uses it to keep his victims awake for hours on end, gaining control over them not so much through the threat of pain (although pain would certainly result if someone were to fall asleep carelessly while mounted on one of these things) but rather through the mental degradation resulting from sleep deprivation.
As in its theoretical application, torture is the means rather than the end in this play. But torture exerts such powerful fascination that it is hard for us to shunt it aside. So, yes, this is a play about torture; but it is also about some other things, and these other subjects give The Vigil a density and gravitas that make it particularly compelling.
The play happens in two different time periods, linked magically—as Skillman has done in other works—by real or supposed bonds among characters that here transcend centuries. The first story we enter is a contemporary one: in the Old Town Square in Prague, a young American woman is viewing the Astronomical Clock, accompanied in impromptu fashion by a young man who becomes her translator and guide. He tells her the story of the clock, which according to legend was built by a man who, after creating this astonishing edifice, was blinded by the king so that he would never be able to make another. The clockmaker's son tried to blow up the clock in an act of retribution. The son, Jan, figures in the second story in The Vigil, for it is he who is Ippolito's first victim in his newfangled "guided cradle." In this part of the play, set in 15th century Prague, Ippolito presents his innovation to the church leader known as Prime; as a result, he faces the enmity of Prime's lead torturer Balto and the admiration of the apprentice torturer Aldo.
Skillman finds surprising ways to connect past and present, finally bringing them together in Ippolito's torture chamber. The Vigil explores the nature of change and progress, and it also meditates on the balance between ultimate control over another human being and the humane impulses that might counteract our basest impulses. And buried in here is a wondrous tale of female empowerment, for neither the American tourist nor her counterpart in the 15th century—the abused daughter of an accused witch—proves to be as helpless as she seems.
Susan Louise O'Connor, the excellent young actress who is one of the authentic stars of NYC's indie theater scene, anchors the play as both of these young women. Her performance is thrilling: she creates two entirely different, though spiritually linked, characters here, managing to somehow look different when she shifts personas even though her costume doesn't change and in some cases she doesn't even leave the stage for transitions between them.
The rest of the cast are all men, and under John Hurley's tight, precise direction they all deliver fine portrayals. Dion Mucciacito is sexy and suitably enigmatic as the modern-day translator who takes the young American woman under his wing. Christian Rummel shows us the dangerous cultivated exterior of Ippolito first, and then slowly reveals the complex conflicted man underneath. Travis York gives a deep and sometimes chilling performance as the novice torturer Aldo, particularly in a tour-de-force scene where he role-plays both torturer and victim with frightening empathy and felicity. Joseph Mathers is heroic as Jan (and has to spend almost all of his stage time uncomfortably situated on the play's eponymous torture device). Rounding out the ensemble are Vinnie Pena as Balto and Alex Pappas as Prime.
Produced by James David Jackson for Impetuous Theater Group, The Vigil boasts a truly top-notch design. No one is specifically credited for the "Vigil" that dominates the set, so I presume it is the work of designer Sylviane Jacobson; it's an impressively evil-looking device. The rest of the spare but functional set serves the work beautifully. Period costumes are by Meryl Pressman and Holly Rihn. Effective lighting and sound are contributed by Olivia Harris and Anthony Mattana, respectively.
It's shocking in a way that such a primitive idea as torture remains so much a part of public discourse in 2010, but The Vigil perversely helps us understand why it has such a hold on us, repelling and fascinating us at the same time. Skillman and Hurley's collaboration here proves timely and incisive.