The Battle Of Spanktown
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
August 16, 2010
Jeffrey Pfeiffer's new play The Battle of Spanktown is a mashup of Shakespearean comedy (e.g., As You Like It, A Midsummer Night's Dream), several different kinds of fairy tales, American history, and various other things. The press release suggests that Pfeiffer is going for satire, dubbing the work "an outrageous epic fairytale for a post-Obama, Tea Partying America." As we are not yet post-Obama—hey, give the guy a chance; he's only been in office 19 months!—I am not even sure what that means; but I have to admit that I didn't get much out of The Battle of Spanktown, certainly nothing political or socially significant.
The story revolves around a Mole and a Badger who live in Spanktown, New Jersey, in the winter of 1777. Mole's an American Patriot on the side of the Revolution, while Badger is a Tory, in favor of the British. When we meet them they are arguing over a piece of cloth; eventually this matter will lead to the battle cited in the play's title. Mole's apprentice is Hobbledehoy, a naive and good-humored "man child" who is heralded as the hero of this tale. Badger's adopted daughter is Lass, a pretty young woman who falls in love at first sight with Hobbledehoy (and he with her).
But there is more than just a piece of cloth keeping our lovers from getting together. It seems that Lord Dingleberry has kidnapped the Winter Queen and stowed her away on a floating medieval castle on the Rahway River, so as to lengthen the bitter winter and force the American rebels to surrender to the British. Dingleberry wants to get in the good graces of Governor William Franklin of New Jersey (Ben's son, but a loyalist), and so dispatches his servant, a Fox, to notify Franklin about the whereabouts of the Winter Queen. In a mix up worthy of Moliere (another mashed-up source), Fox gives the letter intended for Franklin to Hobbledehoy, who brings it to his master Mole. Then Hobbledehoy has a dream in which the Winter Queen appears to him, asking him to free her from Dingleberry. Our hero heads off to do just that, encountering American sculptress Patience Lovell Wright, a talking tree, and a weird hermit out of Monty Python named Moses Buttersworth. There's also a weird mayor of Spanktown and his weirder wife (possibly an S&M submissive and dominatrix, respectively), a goblin, and General George Washington.
Pfeiffer has some fun comic ideas along the way, the best of which to my taste is a do-it-yourself cannon with indecipherable probably-translated-from-Chinese instructions. Most of these are not well-developed; meanwhile, the characters speechify a la Shakespeare and the improbable, very complicated plot churns forward.
Heidi Handelsman directs a cast of a dozen, all of whom give game performances. But in the end all are hobbled by a script that, to my mind, is overlong and severely lacking in purpose. When the play began I asked myself: to what end is all of this whimsy and preciousness going to be put? As The Battle of Spanktown drew to a close about 100 minutes later, I still had no answer.