BWW Review: FIRE ON EARTH Scorches the Church

Fire On Earth

Written by Patrick Gabridge, Directed by Rebecca Bradshaw; Dramaturg, Jessie Baxter; Stage Manager, Anthony F. Schiavo; Assistant Stage Manager, Bethany Joy Kolenda; Set Design, Natalie Laney; Lighting Design, Chris Bocchiaro; Assistant Lighting Design, Emily Crochetiere; Costume Design, Kaitee Tredway; Sound Design, Thomas Blanford; Graphic Design, Melissa DeJesus

CAST: Omar Robinson, Bob Mussett, James Fay, Scot Colford, Brett Milanowski

Performances through February 16 by Fresh Ink Theatre Company at The Factory Theatre, 791 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Tickets

William Tyndale was not the first to translate the Bible into English, but his New Testament translation in 1525 was the first to be mass produced, thanks to advances in the art of printing. His Tyndale Bible, challenging key doctrines of the powerful Catholic Church, could therefore be widely disseminated and was viewed by officials as heretical and dangerous. One risked death by burning if caught in possession of one of the books, but merchant John Tewkesbury assumed the risk of smuggling copies into England to help spread the message of Tyndale's Army of Reformers.

Patrick Gabridge's new play Fire On Earth offers a comprehensive narrative about this struggle between the powerful Church of England, trying to maintain the status quo of control and centuries of tradition, and the cadre of reformers seeking to give The Common man access to God's words in their native language, rather than the Latin which they could not understand. The stakes were incredibly high, with the Church using the full force of its bottomless resources and the might of King Henry VIII to stop the heretics, while Tyndale (Bob Mussett), Tewkesbury (Omar Robinson), and their friend John Frith (James Fay) had their faith in God and the rightness of their cause to guide them and, they believed, to protect them.

The first act has a lot of exposition about Tyndale's mission and the danger he faces in England. Convincing him that he must leave the country to do his work, Tewkesbury lays the groundwork for distributing the manuscript, while Frith convenes with other young reformers at Cambridge to further promote their ideology. Meanwhile, Bishop Tunstall (Scot Colford) preaches about the perils if the Bible gets into the wrong hands, while buying up copies on the black market, and imprisons Frith and his compatriots. Tewkesbury keeps Tyndale on the move throughout Europe for his protection and succeeds in freeing Frith, but his liberty is temporary. Against Tynsdale's wishes, the young man returns to England to continue to speak out, only to be captured again. There's a new Bishop in town, and Stokesley (Brett Milanowski) has a mean glint in his eye. He's the kind of guy who enjoys giving the command to torture, while keeping his own hands clean. Basically, he's bloodless and will stop at nothing to protect the Church and destroy his enemies. In act two, things deteriorate as Tyndale is tired of being on the run and Tewkesbury has lost his bravado. The friendship of the two men is tested, as is their faith.

Mussett and Robinson give strong performances, credibly conveying the convictions of their characters. Mussett brings out the spiritual side of Tyndale, as well as the intellectual, while Robinson inhabits Tewkesbury's take-charge style, making his second act transformation all the more remarkable. Like the character he plays, Fay is earnest, but his performance lacks depth. Colford and Milanowski are fascinating to watch as good priest, bad priest ends of the spectrum. The former shows a little bit of heart, but the latter is devilishly bad.

At the Factory Theatre, Fresh Ink Theatre Company and Director Rebecca Bradshaw use the exposed brick walls and largely undecorated basement space to good effect, augmented by Chris Bocchiaro's creative lighting design, to evoke the hiding places, dank cells, and wooden stakes where the three men labored, plotted, rotted, or burned. Natalie Laney's set design is minimal, but she suggests Tyndale's vast research by heaping piles of books all around the floor, and she has ropes and chains hanging from the rafters for use in torture scenes. Atmospheric sounds of wind and thunderstorms, crowds, and organ music is provided by Sound Designer Thomas Blanford. Kaitee Tredway dresses the reformers in knickers and collarless tunics, and the two Bishops wear flowing robes richly appointed with velvet and needlepoint designs.

It is clear that Gabridge has a passion for history and he finds the theatricality in this true story and the humanity in the characters. There is nothing false about these men or the way they are portrayed. However, the play feels too long, especially in the first act when Tyndale and Tewkesbury repeatedly shift locations (by rolling his desk back and forth across the stage) and discuss how dangerous things are for theM. Robinson stands out, but his character is often overshadowed and it isn't until midway through the second act that it becomes clear that Fire On Earth is supposed to be about Tewkesbury's journey from merchant to martyr. He takes a lot of heat, but he could be given a stronger light.

Photo credit: Jeffrey Mosser (Omar Robinson, James Fay, Bob Mussett)

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