Six actors sat behind the row of music stands that held their scripts, and they kept the large audience at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center mesmerized for close to two hours.
The occasion this past Sunday was a reading of a play by playwright, professor, and award-winning director Jonathan Lipsky. “Beginner’s Luck: The Story of King Saul in the Bible,” is a smart, humorous, sharply contemporary treatment of early foibles and intrigues of Saul, David, and Samuel.
The seated actors gestured, mimed, grimaced, and animated the script to the brink of levitation, so thoroughly did they create whole-scene images, expressing a range of emotion in this fierce look at the betrayals, cruelties, and those other constants in human societies between now and way back then.
Even if the troupe had spent a long time rehearsing – they prepared in a single afternoon – they couldn’t have produced a more tightly timed, coordinated, and polished presentation, complete with sound effects, chimes, bells, tambourines and in unison, chants and foot stomping.
“I love readings,” said Mr. Lipsky, looking very pleased. “They keep you very present because all you have to do is listen to the words and not watch the nuances of the staging.”
Brian Ditchfield’s expression traveled the gamut of feelings as the insecure, rather bumbling, very funny and equally endearing King Saul, the first king of Israel.
Mr. Ditchfield’s wife, actor Brooke Hardman Ditchfield, played the cunning and ambitious David (Israel’s second king) with great appeal.
Paula Langton (Ruth the Witch) and her husband Ken Cheeseman (the Prophet Samuel, last judge of Israel) brought clarity and real dimension to their roles.
And contributing necessary embellishments were Nicole Galland, as Narrator, and Lynn Ditchfield as Musician and Narrator.
The story begins with Saul, the donkey driver, innocently presenting his qualifications to Samuel, explaining that he enjoys a good joke, has a cast iron stomach, and is reliable. But the decision has been made that Israel needs a king — “changing from a moral government to a civil government,” and after he sings a chorus of “Ain’t no flies on me,” Samuel names Saul — an empty vessel, “a completely unimportant person” — King of Israel.
Wearing his new crown, Saul goes back to Ruth, a practical witch with sound reasoning abilities, and asks, “Notice anything different?”
Ruth is bewildered by this turn of events, and tells Samuel, “This person does not have what is commonly called, resources.”
Samuel responds, “That’s why he was chosen.”
The script is loaded with expletives, sarcasm, and wickedly pointed social commentary. Samuel coaches Saul, telling him he should be prepared to kill others and if necessary, fall on his sword.
He lists the 10 essential things a king must relinquish: Fondest memories, cherished dreams, secret pleasures (“You need your naps, Saul,” Ruth cautions), obsessions, daily habits, ambitions, vanities, regrets, loved ones, and yes, ideals.
By the time Act One ends, Saul has waged and won a battle with the Amalekites, promising to spare the life of their king, Agog. Samuel rescinds Saul’s promise, killing Agog after Saul refuses. He then enlists the shepherd David, slayer of Goliath, to conspire with him against the flawed and confused Saul.
In Act Two, Samuel explains the changing times, saying in part: “Time we used to spend in contemplation we now devote to commerce.” A ruthless (good quality for a king) David marries Saul’s daughter Mical and becomes King of Israel.
Among the barbs and contemporary humor — Mr. Lipsky says, “To use contemporary language makes the story contemporary” — he loads the script with historic tidbits and fascinating facts about the times, the events, even the animals.
At one point, after Ruth creates a defective sanctuary circle for Saul, the Musician declares, “This is true. Saul banished the witches. His government forbade all witches to practice their arts in Israel. By his order, witches were outlawed and persecuted from that day forth as far into the future as the law extends.”
There is no happy ending. As the Musician announces: “As for the rest of the country, Samuel’s predictions were correct. The monarchy attracted enormous power to itself and destroyed the fabric of society.”
But this past Sunday night at the Hebrew Center ended triumphantly. The actors rose to the craft, intelligence, and artfulness of the script, doing it proud.
And the pervading mood of the evening was expressed in the affection those attending expressed for Mr. Lipsky.