By TAMAR NEUMANN: The story of Merlin and King Arthur has been re-told in a thousand different ways with almost as many different interpretations of each character. Phillip Andrew Bennet Low states, “The value of a . . . good yarn lies . . . not in invention—but re-invention,” and his words readily apply to the story of King Arthur. Whether you believe the myth of King Arthur is truth, kind of truth, or complete fiction, the value of the story is incalculable because of the enjoyment it has brought to generations dating all the way back to medieval times.
In Tales From Camelot, Six Elements Theatre presents two new plays about Merlin and Arthur—or at least two new interpretations of these stories. The first, Broceliande; the death of Merlin, is a lyrical re-telling of how Merlin was killed. In The Rise of General Arthur, the story of King Arthur is told through Sir Pellinore’s adventures in the Gulf War. Both plays explore these old stories in a new fashion, in an effort to tease out elements of the story you may not have considered.
In the director’s notes for Broceliande, Jenna Papke states, “If at points you aren’t sure what’s going on—the characters aren’t either.” This is a statement you should take to heart. The story is confusing. While it’s about Merlin’s death, it’s also about his fears, his loves, and his memories, but the entire play is told from Bagdemagus’ (Zac Delventhal) experience with a magic stone. If, after watching the play, you find yourself asking “what just happened?” you would be justified. While the actors have little control over the actual content of the play, they do have control over how that content is performed. They can make it easier or harder for the audience to follow. In this production it’s a little of both. While it is clear that Merlin is dead and we are learning about how that death occurred, most of the small details get lost. The emotions—passion, love, fear—come through clearly in the movements of the actors. In some ways, this play would have been almost as effective without the words; it is the words that often cause most of the confusion. The actors pour their souls out on the tiny stage, but at times it’s just not enough to get you to care about what is actually happening. If you go, just remember to forget about trying to understand the story and focus on the lyrical sound of the words and the movements of the actors.
The Rise of General Arthur is a one man play written and performed by Phillip Andrew Bennett Low. The concept is fascinating. What would the story of King Arthur be like set in a time of modern warfare? Would King Arthur be as idolized as a “General Arthur?” Unfortunately, this production does not answer those questions. It promises a re-telling of the classic story, but it mostly focuses on the story of Sir Pellinore, and you only briefly meet King Arthur. That is not necessarily bad, but it begs the question “what happens to General Arthur?” This version of the story never actually tells you, unless you count the prophecy by Merlin that everyone already knows—that Arthur will be killed by his son. The performance by Low was less a case of acting and then it was a case of dramatic reading. About every ten minutes he would return to the script and read directly from it. While this may have been a deliberate choice, the performance was much stronger during the pieces that he actually memorized. And while there is nothing wrong with a dramatic reading, it seems a strange choice to perform half of the play and read the other half. The actual play was strongly written with some funny and touching moments. Setting it during the Gulf War did not illuminate any new aspects of the story, but it did allow for a modern connection to an old story.
When you put the two plays together you end up with an odd night of theatre. One half it is unclear, and the other half seems to still be in development. Six Elements Theatre made a bold promise with this show—one that I’m not quite sure they delivered on.
Tales From Camelot, by Phillip Andrew Bennett Low. April 11-April 19. Six Elements Theatre, Studio 402B Northrup King Building, 1500 Jackson St. NE, Minneapolis, MN 55413. Tickets: $18; purchase tickets at sixelementscompany.org or 612.578.3346.