King Stephen of Blois, who ruled England from 1135 to 1154, may seem like an obscure subject for a contemporary play.
But “The Arms and Armament of Stephen of Blois,” prolific local playwright Stuart Eugene Bousel’s 30-minute monologue, streaming as part of Exit Theatre’s series “Exit Theatre Presents,” is funny, scatological and carefully wrought.
And, as performed with humor and wistfulness by terrific local actor Fred Pitts and directed by the equally impressive Nick Trengove with, wisely, little movement (Pitts sits in a chair on the Exit stage the entire time) and plenty of emotional variation, it’s an engrossing little portrait of a forgotten ruler.
It’s set on the springtime day of Stephen’s wife Mathilda’s funeral, only two years before the king’s own death in 1154. He is preparing for the event and confiding, to his 10-year-old page, his innermost thoughts, which tend toward the “heavy is the head that wears the crown” variety. (In fact, “You would not believe how heavy this is,” he tells the page, examining it.)
A longtime rival for the throne against his cousin Empress Mathilda (his life is filled with women named Mathilda, he notes), he, in 1120, just happened to be waylaid by a bout of diarrhea on the beach before boarding a ship—known as the White Ship——filled with members of the English court. Thus he missed the last call, and was spared when the ship capsized and most of the passengers drowned. Somehow that accidental reprieve helped him attain the crown, he believes, in a sort of re-destined way.
This solo show is Part 2 of Bousel’s planned “Anarchy Quartet.” He previously premiered Part 1, about Empress Mathilda’s struggle, during a wintry walk, to escape Stephen, so this one explores Stephen’s perspective (he calls her a sourpuss and says it’s important for a ruler to be popular).
Next up will be speeches by Eleanor of Aquitaine (set in summer) and Henry I’s son William Adelin, who died at 17 (autumn). All four take place during “The Anarchy,” a medieval period of civil war in England. Bousel says he perceives parallels to our own period.
Be that as it may, this is an entertaining little piece. In Pitts’ assured portrayal, Stephen’s teasing, affectionate relationship with his page is convincing (“Do I frighten you?” he says jovially. “Good God, you look terrified,” and “You are not hopeless. Neither am I.”)
And his sometimes sad, sometimes agitated, sometimes goofy meanderings about his life—his beautiful mother, his mistress, his adored favorite son, his longing for wineoffer intriguing, if slight, glimpses into a long-ago, faraway scenario. The quartet, hopefully eventually playing all together live onstage, will be meatier and is something to look forward to.
Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts journalist specializing in theater.