It is the 1300s, the Dark Ages, and young orphan Crispin is literally running for his life in England in "Crispin: The Cross of Lead," based on the Newbery Award winning book by Avi. As the production at People's Light & Theatre Co. explains, a neat way to get someone removed is to declare them a "Wolf's head," which gives anyone the right to kill them and collect a reward. The village steward John Aycliffe, played with unceasing aggression and cruelty by Stephen Novelli, is the perfect villain. This story, popular with middle schoolers, is not only a story of dark plots and sadness, but it's performed on a very dark stage, giving a very spooky background to the show.There is not much positive happening in the 1300s in Europe. The black plague has killed one third of the population, including Crispin's mother, leaving the country with a shortage of workers. With many children without parents to care for them, neither the government nor the corrupt church tried to help. The poverty stricken Crispin, who has always been known as Asta's son, learns as his mother dies, that his real name is the upper class name Crispin. Father Quinel (Michael Lopez), the only person Crispin can trust, promises to tell him about his father the next night, but Crispin discovers him dead the next day, and he is accused of the crime.
As he flees for his life, he meets a juggler and rabble rouser Bear (Christopher Patrick Mullen) who is traveling to meet John Ball, the head of the peas-ant's Revolt. Bear teaches the sullen Crispin to juggle and sing so he can pass as a troubadour through the dangerous countryside. Unlike Crispin, Bear can read and has learned from an inscription on the lead cross Crispin wears, that Crispin is the illegitimate son of a wealthy official who has died recently. This is the reason he is being stalked: so he cannot claim the inheritance.
People's Light gives a fast moving show, although I would have preferred a little more light on stage, although that would have made hiding in the trees a little more difficult. There are some flashes of levity in the show, particularly between Bear and Crispin, but the performance kept the audience trans-fixed. The introduction of bright and cheery Inn Keeper Widow Daventry (Kathleen Lisa Clark) is a welcome shaft of light.
In notes from the director he says that when he first read the book he thought it was too scary for his boys ages 8 and 10. When he did read it to them anyway, their favorite parts were the sections of danger and survival. There were so many middle school boys in the audience, one had to believe that this was a favorite story.
The show runs through Feb.
24. For tickets call 610-644-3500.