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Review: Decapitating American History in ‘King Philip’s Head’


Review: Decapitating American History in ‘King Philip’s Head’

This is not, for the record, the first time that a Clubbed Thumb production has explored a chapter of American history via gender-reversed casting. The company scored a hit four years ago with the similarly conceived “Men on Boats,” Jaclyn Backhaus’s reimagining of John Wesley Powell’s 1869 geological expedition in the American West.

That show, which used non-male performers to portray its manly male characters, subsequently transferred to Playwrights Horizons for a longer run. Like “Men on Boats” — and like Phyllida Lloyd’s wonderful series of all-female Shakespeare from London’s Donmar Warehouse — “King Philip’s Head” reminds us of the gleeful illumination that can come from women embodying men.

For one thing, the discrepancy between macho posture and physical reality underscores how so much of perceived masculinity is a matter of posing. And without dropping their voices or flexing their muscles, the actresses of “King Philip’s Head” provide a transparent window on the contortions and confusions of ego-driven men in power — and of the absurdity of the official rules and regulation used to justify highly irregular behavior.

But while the gender-swapping casting works beautifully here, this is not a play about the subjugation and erasure of women in public life. Or not only that. Broader notions of what constitutes equality are parsed, in deliciously convoluted language. (Mr. Glenn, who is also a high school English teacher, has a keen ear for the emptiness of political bloviation.)

So is the concept of free will according to Puritan theology, a subject of particular concern to Goodman Giddens (Zuzanna Szadkowski), who suffers from some mighty unholy lusts. Then there is the suspiciously close friendship between Peters (Rachel Christopher), whose wife is said to consort with the devil, and Fuller (Kristin Villanueva), whose own spouse poses some knotty problems in the bedchamber.

The ensemble also includes Mary Lou Rosato (as council members of several successive generations from one family), Elizabeth Kenny and, as the variously pliant women in these men’s lives, an admirably understated Sam Breslin Wright. Even (or especially) when their characters are at their most obnoxious and obstructive, they’re all delightful company.

As is usually true of Clubbed Thumb, the production has been expertly and attractively mounted, with a wittily anachronistic set (Carolyn Mraz) and costumes to match (by Melissa Ng). “King Philip’s Head” is probably too much of a cleverly extended sketch to have the afterlife of other examinations of American institutions that were incubated at Clubbed Thumb, including Heidi Schrek’s Tony-nominated “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a current hit on Broadway.

But for the fast, goofy duration of its 80 minutes, “King Philip’s Head” qualifies as one of this season’s tastier diversions. As a distant mirror to contemporary stasis, it may be too familiar for comfort. Still, in this prickly summer of American discontent, there’s sweet relief in being allowed to giggle contentedly at a shrewd, silly evocation of the kind of legislative gridlock that usually has us biting our nails and fearing for our future.

King Philip’s Head Is Still on That Pike Just Down The Road

Through June 29 at Wild Project, Manhattan; 212-260-0153, Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

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