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LA Weekly

Much like his more familiar novel Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe's
1722 Journal of the Plague Year concerns a man longing for human contact.
But it's another calamity of nature -- the Great Plague of 1665 which
killed a third of London's population -- that elicits our hero's solitude. As
adapted into a one-man show by actor Stephen Legawiec, and seamlessly staged
by director Dana Wieluns, Defoe's tale is a horrific, stirring
celebration of humanity. On Legawiec's hay-strewn set, an unnamed saddle maker
chooses to remain in the ravaged city to maintain his faltering shop; there he
recounts the grisly details of the epidemic. Most repugnant is how the rich
and the royals easily avoid the contagion and how "the plague makes us
murderers," since those contaminated must be quarantined with their otherwise
healthy families. Legawiec portrays the saddler with subtle conviction and
sly sarcasm, especially when playing sundry charlatans wishing to profit
from the resultant misery. Designer Leif Gantvoort's lighting plot
complements the grim narrative, most notably when our protagonist discovers the
ghastly contents of a nearby lake. (Martín Hernández)

Back Stage West
Southern CA August 27, 2003

"Journal of the Plague Year"
Reviewed By Dany Margolies

"Death, as the Psalmist saith, is certain to all; all shall die." But who knew we'd be richer in spirit for having stared death down in such a terrifying circumstance? Daniel Defoe's semi-fictional Journal of the Plague Year recounts a Londoner's will to survive throughout 1665, when the Black Death took at least 100,000 lives. Defoe's account could be a frigid read; Stephen Legawiec adapts it to the stage, bringing characters to vibrant life, adding hearty interactions, and making of it a universal, timeless, and surprisingly humor-tinged tale of our interconnectedness. In this stage version, one could imagine seeing the likes of the late Nigel Hawthorne, Frank Middlemass, or another classic old-time English actor as the diarist. But onstage in this primarily one-man show is the very American Legawiec, nearly unrecognizable under makeup and a period haircut, just as classical an actor, just as impeccably creating a classic role. Legawiec and his character observe all with a soft heart, cool eye, and pointed pen. "I've been in mourning for two months, and I'm sick of it," the Londoner says ironically. Reacting to the paranoia around him, his ordinary citizen turns existential, then humanist. He watches the sick walk to a graveside and tumble in; we note the survival of a pesky duck while beloved servants are dropping or fleeing. Legawiec and director Dana Wieluns keep locations, characters, and moods discrete and defined, aided as well by Leif Gantvoort's picturesque lighting. The use of a fog machine, however, only symbolizes the toxicity we've let ourselves be subjected to since those times; it adds nothing visual to the theatricality, which is amply supplied by the lighting instruments and our own imaginations. Lorin Eric Salm introduces the evening as the Town Crier; Scout Taylor-Compton arrives onstage as the flesh-and-blood, welcome-surprise hope for the future; all accents are impeccable as coached by Moira Quirk. After sharing an evening about death, pain, loss, and partings, we also realize we've shared the intensity of Legawiec's buoyant message. And now that we are the beneficiaries of his lessons, let us hope we don't soon forget the meaning and joy of a simple handshake.

City Beat
Where There's Death There's Hope

There's an idea current that people are their best selves in a crisis, that the recent blackout revealed "the real New York," which, of course, was also revealed on September 11, 2001. The subsequent outpouring of sympathy and donations that autumn also revealed the "true spirit of America." This is both true and romanticized nonsense. What we are quick to forget is that 9/11 also prompted a spate of attacks on suspiciously swarthy, foreign-looking people, that Congress rolled over for an unprecedented assault on civil liberties and two wars were met with they-must-know-what-they're-doing-they-wouldn't-lie-to-us shrugs. That is also the true spirit of America. Daniel Defoe's "Journal of the Plague Year," as adapted and performed by The Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble’s Stephen Legawiec dives deep into the behavior of people in the sustained crisis of the London Plague of 1665. It takes an unflinching and unromanticized look at the best and worst of human nature as it descends in a mire of disease and death and finds a measure of hope. Less visually spectacular than a typical Ziggurat production, the play is nonetheless striking in its theatricality and setting. Led into a fog-shrouded straw-strewn street outside a boarded-up London residence by a town crier, who sets the play in its historical context of recently settled sectarian and political strife, we meet our un-named guide, a saddler, who, for all he knows, may be the last living person in London. Jolted out of his confusion and despair, he takes us back to the first faint stirrings of the epidemic. Here Legawiec's adaptation diverges from Defoe to provide a more cozily domestic household for the saddler, details the somewhat drier and more reportorial Defoe skips over. Legawiec gives the audience and the saddler a stake in the progress of the disease, and something to hope for. The bustling household - the saddler, his assistant Buck, Mrs. Stewart and an exasperatingly clever 12-year-old girl hear of the first cases, but are none too alarmed: there are only a few and on the other side of town. Jokes about the recent Dutch outbreak can be made. For weeks the disease seems to be in check. That false hope is exploded when the realization hits that plague deaths have gone on increasing, misreported or unreported, and the awful magnitude of their situation is thrust upon them. Getting out of town is the expedient of choice, yet the saddler remains. For the rich, the choice is easy. There are country homes and incomes to sustain them outside of town. The King and his court evacuate the city while the Lord Mayor vows to remain in the city, come what may. (Feel free to make your own 9/11 comparisons here.) Compelled in shifting parts by faith in God's will and economic necessity, the saddler stays (as his household escapes) to bear witness. The parish lists grow, houses are boarded up with victims and their uninfected families alike inside. Hucksters and religious lunatics (hilariously played by Legawiec) come out of the woodwork. This, too, is how people behave in extremis. Shifting easily from humor to crisp reportage to depths of horror and despair – a night time visit to a burial pit in which the bodies seem to ripple like water in the flickering torchlight is a wrenching highlight – the production is a marvel of energy and economy. Director Dana Wieluns keeps Legawiec on the move and the stage seem full though it is essentially a solo performance. And it is that fullness of life in all its aspects, not just the ones that make us feel good about ourselves - that earns this production the right to hope amid the despair it puts so vividly on stage.

 
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