History has preserved no copy of the script of Ye Bare and Ye Cubb, the first play written and performed in America by English colonists, but thanks to recent scholarship by Marin Shakespeare Company's Joel Eis we know that the circumstances of that show — written and performed in a Virginia tavern in 1665 — make for a great story themselves.
Now writer/director Mark Jackson has made that story into a play of its own. God's Plot, at Shotgun Players, does include an educated (and exaggerated) guess of what Ye Bare and Ye Cubb might have been like. (Burgundy yarn as bear intestines features prominently.) But for Jackson, the play-within-a-play is only interesting inasmuch as it helps paint a rich portrait of the small colonial town that gave rise to it.
As with most colonial controversies, Ye Bare and Ye Cubb concerned economics. The powers that be in London were purchasing tobacco from Virginia farmers at prices so artificially low that the colonists were losing property that they had bought on credit — "40,000 souls impoverished to 40 London merchants," as Jackson's characters put it. (In case you're starting to see a parallel, the farmers, in mathematical terms, are the 99.9 percent.)
Once grousing in the town pub gets nowhere, a few of the residents elect to mount a play, pitting a cub against a bear to represent the farmer against the merchant. Though the town loves the spectacle, local authorities must try the fledgling troupe in court both for performing the play on the Sabbath and for publicly speaking out against the king.
There's no small part in God's Plot. Each of Jackson's 10 characters, played by a compelling cast, is complex, full of foibles and desires and that uniquely American habit of constant self-justifying. And each has a different stake in Ye Bare and Ye Cubb. Thomas Fowkes (a quietly forceful Daniel Bruno), the affable but restrained bartender, and Edward Martin (John Mercer), a dyspeptic indentured servant, risk getting outed as Quakers, another blasphemy. Edmond Pore (Kevin Clarke), the judge, and his wife, Constance (a splendidly robotic Fontana Butterfield), risk losing a promotion to the more sophisticated Jamestown should Edmond not mete out justice with the rigid hand his superiors demand. And the ever-chipper Daniel Prichard (Joe Salazar), better known as "the practical carpenter," risks nothing, but in so doing risks getting left behind by the object of his desire: a young girl named Tryal Pore (Juliana Lustenader).
If the play has any center, it's Tryal. Lustenader seems to worm her way into every scene, and she sings narration (in styles ranging from country ballad to jazzy torch song to musical-theater showstopper, all written by Daveen DiGiacomo, and performed by Travis Kindred on the upright bass and Josh Pollock on the banjo). The one place she can't thrust herself into, however, is the heart of the local playwright, William Darby (a charismatic but untouchable Carl Holvick-Thomas).
It's a bold and effective choice by Jackson to frame the play through the perspective of Tryal, precisely the kind of person history tends to leave out. When she calls out her parents, the judge and his wife, for pretending to be religious in public, or castigates her lover for failing to treat her in accordance with his lofty ideals, she does so with all the righteous force of an underdog giving history's fat cats their long-due comeuppance. Her character also helps a production of Ye Bare and Ye Cubb seem plausible. Prior to that first play, public confessions by young women like her, which in this telling are scripted down to syllabic emphasis points, were the best entertainment available. The public already had a tasted for theater, so long as it wasn't too far off from watching a woman's body writhe in religious ecstasy.
Nina Ball's set of unadorned medium wood, which with Jackson's brisk and clever staging passes for everything from a period church and a courtroom to a barn and a tavern, conveys how little this society separated different spheres of life, how monolithic the culture was, how theater and religion really could be "staged" the same way. And her choice to seat some of the audience onstage helps drive home one of the play's most important, if occasionally hokey, messages: Fascinating as Ye Bare and Ye Cubb is, it's how the audience chose to react to it that's most important — and we are the descendants of that first American audience.