Philly's acclaimed playwrights collective Orbiter 3 this month presents its fifth world premiere, actor and writer Mary Tuomanen's Peaceable Kingdom, a mordant comedy set amid a menagerie of talking animals that satirizes some of the most deeply-entrenched myths and symbols we associate with the founding of America.
Peaceable Kingdom, which will be performed through May 28 at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City, sets its sights on an obsession that seems to have gripped generations of settlers from the Puritans to William Penn and the Quakers – their belief, their faith, their hope that America was kind of heaven on earth, a utopia.
Tuomanen, whose comedy Marcus/Emma was produced in January by Interact Theatre Company, said her latest play was inspired in part by composer Randall Thompson's famous 1936 choral piece Peaceable Kingdom. Thompson in turn was inspired by a series of paintings about the book of Isaiah made between 1844 and 1846 by Philadelphia painter Edward Hicks. (Read about them on the Philadelphia Museum of Art's website.)
So while Tuomanen's story and dialogue is comic, it is interrupted at key points by a nine-piece choir (dressed as trees to fit the outdoor setting) which delivers selections from Thompson's sublime, deeply spiritual composition.
Absent the music and Peaceable Kingdom is witty, silly, and wacky to the point of derangement. It plays like a mix of Sesame Street, Saturday Night Live and George Orwell's Animal Farm, and carries behind its grinning surface a sharp satirical edge.
It sets out to show what might happen if the continent that Penn first saw upon his arrival in 1682 really was heaven. You know the place where peoples truly are equal, where love replaces greed, compassion overcomes bloodlust. The place where the lion and the lamb can become BFFs.
So, of course the colorful cast of characters includes a majestic lion (Cathy Simpson) and a couple of lambs (Stephanie N. Walters and Eliana Fabiyi) – not to mention a kid goat (Daniel Park), a Leopard (Chris Davis) and two squirrels (Thomas Choinacky and John Jarboe). There are only two humans in the story, a Lenape chief named Tamanend (Autry Theater Ensemble's Carla Rae, whose TV credits include New Amsterdam and Scoundrels), and his guest, a newly arrived white man named William Penn (Hong Kong actor and Villanova University master's student Alexandra King in her Philly debut).
In the prelapsarian world of Peaceable Kingdom, lambs and leopards cuddle and trade jokes. They discuss food, they debate philosophy and they get together in communal meetings that feel like a cross between a Quaker meeting and a 12-step group.
Despite the harmony that seems to prevail, we get a sense that violence is never far off in this world. The Lion has to check himself from tearing into the lamb while the Leopard can't help fantasize about the taste of blood from a fresh kill.
Tuomanen doesn't just turn the natural world on its head.
In this version of America, the worldview of Native Americans as normative, which means Penn comes off peculiar, strange and foreign. As Tamanend exclaims in exasperation, the dude is too uncivilized to understand that when you're offered a pipe, you don't keep it. You pass it around.
But Peaceable Kingdom is not some self-righteous exercise in revisionary history. The play never takes itself too seriously and manages to poke fun at both cultures it depicts.
Despite the hilarity, Thompson's music injects a spirit of utter earnestness into the proceedings - a touch of the spirit that's deeply moving and utterly melancholy. It tears us away from the spectacle and reminds us of the real violence that prevailed on the American continent a generation after Penn's arrival.
Tuomanen told me recently that she wanted the sacred music to act as a counterpoint to the absurdist comedy.
"There's a contradiction that runs through the whole thing," she said in a phone interview.
"The idea that you could have so much peace in the hope religion gives and yet have so much violence in reality."