The William Williams Effect

This was an excellent show, and an excellent script, and like most excellent scripts there’s really not much to say about it. I will say that it has extraordinary polish, to the point that it doesn’t really feel like a Fringe show. Which is not to denigrate Fringe shows — I love those chaotic clusters of big splashy ideas. But for the most part they’re like mandalas — made to get washed away after a period of time, and they don’t really have much of a life or much of an audience outside of the Festival proper. This one feels like it does: it’s the kind of thing I could easily see on a mainstream theatre’s mainstage season.

The script consists of alternating between docudrama — composed of courtroom transcripts, correspondence, and newspaper articles — and the family drama imagined by the playwrights. The transition between the two is seamless. The courtroom is a naturally theatrical setting, and the play culminates in the key events of each storyline taking place onstage simultaneously. It’s an old theatre trick, but one used to great effect here.

Saw this just after seeing Winnemucca, and I found it tying into some of the same questions of certainty and doubt. To achieve sufficient certainty to end another’s life — in cold blood, outside of the context of war or self-defense — it’s hard for me to regard that as anything other than certainty bordering on fanaticism. Does the fact that it takes place within some bureaucratic system — in which no single individual has to take responsibility for his death — somehow make it acceptable to us? Sanitize it? And the physical description of his hanging — pulled directly from contemporary description — effectively removes any sanitized or romantic notion of his death. Our bodies breaking down is an ugly, ugly thing.

This is, by the way, making me re-evaluate what I wrote about Habitat in my overview of the Out-of-Towner’s showcase — I made some comments about docudrama that may have been too much of a sweeping, blanket assertion. Why did I accept the counterfeiting of historical personages here, but not there? Is it because the characters have all been dead for so long? Is it because it was so seamlessly executed that I was willing to suspend my disbelief? Whatever the case, it’s something that deserves more careful consideration than the glib dismissal I gave it.

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