In This Satire, Old Plagues Are New Again

In The Plague Master General (a bubonic comedy), Blue Hour Theatre Group puts a different spin on a familiar topic. It runs through April 27 at West of Lenin. 


It’s a bit funny to think about how a comedy about the plague might’ve played to a pre-global pandemic crowd. Would the distance from our experience heighten the comedy, or would it just seem too unrelatable to our modern age?

Obviously, that’s a purely academic question. Blue Hour Theatre’s new tragicomedy, The Plague Master General (a bubonic comedy), is clearly — at least in large part — a commentary on the COVID-19 response and how to keep on living (and laughing) between moments of horror and absurdity. In a sometimes-jarring blend of slapstick and sorrow, the show’s indefatigable ensemble (six actors, in a multitude of roles) grounds the over-the-top elements with real pathos. 

Back in the mid-1300s (ish), Lord Alfonso Aguiar Lobato de Braga (Jillian Faulk) — Alfie, to his friends — has a brand-new sash, a bunch of shiny medals, and a problem: the young nobleman, with no particular qualifications, has been tasked by his benefactor, the Baron (Jeremy Radick), with curing a plague that’s sweeping through their unnamed medieval town. Alfie, game but clueless, runs up against scientific ignorance, religious restrictions, and the indifference of the moneyed class as he bumbles about in search of a cure. He eventually teams up with Dr. Botter (Annie St John), a doctor whose gender forces her to the edges of society, despite the fact that she seems to be the only person who might be able to help him. But can two people really cure a plague?

There are laughs to be had, for sure, from writer-director Greg LoProto. There’s more than a whiff of British comedy classics like the sketches of Monty Python or Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder series in this show’s DNA. The cast, in particular the main duo of Faulk and St John, definitely bring the laughs. Faulk brings a quiet, controlled humor to the straight-man Alfie, balancing his cluelessness with a genuine concern for carrying out his impossible task, while St John’s Dr. Botter is an appealing mix of resolve and twinkle-in-her-eye rebelliousness as she bucks against the ignorance of the era. There’s a sort of madcap energy to the two in earlier scenes that the actors seamlessly transition into genuine affection by the play’s end; it’s the heart of the second act, and both actors nail it.

Radick’s Baron is an amusing fop, but he has more room to show off his comedy chops as Alfie’s charming but pragmatic bestie Sir Donald, or as a dying but still cheerful townswoman. Rounding out the cast are Ellen Dessler Smith, whose Teutonic Baroness is the real power behind the throne; Sara Schweid, in a deliciously vicious turn as Father Lacey, who reads like Severus Snape without the warmth; and Brian Brooks as the cheerfully indifferent Irish priest Father O’Frahgle. Apart from Faulk, each actor plays between three and six characters, making the production feel surprisingly expansive. 

West of Lenin’s theatre space (as configured for this production at least) is, essentially, theatre in the rectangle: a long, thin performance space flanked by the audience. This does occasionally make the actors’ blocking challenging, though LoProto’s direction keeps the action kinetic enough to mostly overcome the issue; and lighting design (by Chris Ertel) is effective in helping direct the audience’s attention. 

While the show’s first act is played more for laughs, the second act takes a darker turn, and your mileage may vary as to whether the play completely makes it through the hairpin turn from broad comedy into tragedy. LoProto himself acknowledges in his director’s note that he “meant to write a comedy, yet here we are,” and the play does end (no spoilers for a 14th-century plague outbreak) on a pretty bleak note. Still, it’s an amusing satire on a horrifyingly relevant historical event, from a cast that’s small but mighty. 

The Plague Master General from Blue Hour Theatre Group runs through 4/27 at West of Lenin in Fremont. Tickets $25 suggested (pay-what-you-choose available for all), hereAccessibility notes: restrooms are gender-neutral, single-stall; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.

Run time: 2 hours 10 minutes with intermission 

Jill Farrington Sweeney is a Texas ex-pat getting to know the Seattle-area arts scene, and is perpetually on the hunt for good Mexican food. Her writing has appeared on TheaterJones, Onstage NTX, and NWTheatre.