Fire on Earth – 4 stars

Three men are in a basement: a scholar, a man moved by God, and a salesman. What could they possible have in common? Why, selling Bibles, of course! Fire On Earth, written by Patrick Gabridge and directed by Rebecca Bradshaw, takes place during a time when “both preaching and writing can get you killed, but with preaching, you won’t have anything to show for it.” This true story takes place in 1524 England during a time when British bishops do not want the Testament translated for their supplicants. This reviewer had no background information for this historical time period, but didn’t need it, because the story explains itself. The wonderfully witty two-act play is not preachy or churchy; it is crafty and interesting. The seemingly dry topic of writing the first English translation of the Bible is transformed into a production of faith, love, and passion (fire) turning into torture and martyrdom (bonfire). The actors embody their characters not only through voice and movement, but also with facial expressions, often reserved for the big screen, that reflect the inner conflict of thoughts and feelings.

Bob Mussett plays William Tyndale, a master of seven languages who is absorbed in finding “just the right word” as he reads original Latin and Hebrew Bibles, frequently refers to Greek and German translations, and all the while knows that the French, Spanish, Dutch and Danes already have a Testament in their own languages. God may only speak through bishops, but William Tyndale knows that God can be read in many languages. From among his desk and stacks of books, he speaks just enough of the different languages to be a believable linguist as he wrestles with a reality that tests his faith. He believes that the common people are hungry for the Word of God, that it’s not him, it’s the Word, that is moving him to translate. Mr. Mussett’s acting brings out his character’s exuberance and intensity about language, while also showing growth in the ability to have compassion toward his fellow, heretical friends, as they risk their own lives to protect his sacred work. In its hallway, the Fresh Ink theatre displays original paintings of the people represented in this play, a timeline of events, and other information, such as, phrases coined by Tyndale: “the powers that be,” “salt of the Earth,” “my brother’s keeper,” “Passover,” “Jehovah,” and “atonement.”

Omar Robinson plays John Tewkesbury who knows that “we live in a world as it is, not as we wish it to be.” He is a Bible bootlegger. Tewkesbury subversively sells translations within a system where Sir Thomas More is the “muscle” making sure heretics, who are trying to access the scripture for their own enlightenment and study, are punished. Mr. Robinson’s portrayal is powerful, providing comic relief, as well as illustrating the transformative power of believing in the important work that he and his companions are engaged. Each character struggles with the question, “What if what we’re doing isn’t what God wants at all?”

James Fay plays John Frith, an idealistic, naïve, Protestant man who comes into the story like “a fresh spring breeze,” ends up stinking like cod fish from six months in prison, and is eventually burned at the stake for his involvement with Tyndale and speaking the Word of the Bible (remember, only Bishops are supposed to know the Word). Historically, Frith was executed for not accepting transubstantiation, only a week before King Henry the VIII was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for wanting to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. Mr. Fay captures the righteous indignation of the young, swearing that “My faith in God will protect me.”

Scot Colford plays Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall (and also a soldier). Tunstall’s career spanned 85 years, of which 37 were as bishop. Colford’s sympathetic portrayal illustrates Tunstall’s dislike of persecution. Tunstall buys up and burns all available copies of Tyndale’s Testament in order to avoid burning actual people. Brett Milanowski, rounds out the five-person cast, capturing the sinister quality of Bishop John Stokesly, the man who would burn human beings at the stake as heretics. Kaitee Tredway’s costumes are a welcomed surprise for this small theatre production. The bishops’ robes were beautifully embroidered, capturing the opulence of clergy, alongside the breeches and capes fit for the century from which they came. Most cast members also take a turn at being a monk clothed in brown, long, hooded garb that feels like it just came from the monastery.

Sound design by Thomas Blanford includes well-placed organ music, the sound of wind or rain, and the voices of a crowd in the market place. Sound elements herald the opening and closing of scenes and makes the venue feel bigger than it is. The music also brings elements of suspense, danger, and fear whether burning of books or people, which combined with lighting are quite dramatic. The lighting by Chris Bocchiaro added to the ambiance of this time period. The high ceilings of the theatre lend themselves to hanging hurricane lamps that dim and glow as needed. The set design by Natalie Laney includes hanging knotted ropes, props for later scenes, that give the impression of a ship, at best, and hangings, at worst – both vital elements to the story line. Seeing how the public burning is done, not once, but twice, on stage with only the implication of fire rising from the person’s feet to their head chills one to the bone. The staging and movement of the actors makes it difficult to avert one’s eyes.

This show, with its intense themes and frequent cussing, is not for children. If you are interested in the struggles of faith and seeing a romp of three friends evading their persecutors in order to write and sell the Word of God, with a spine-tingling ending, then this production is for you. It is wonderful to know that Boston has a place for new works to be performed and a vibrant, talented theatrical society.

The Fresh Ink Theatre is located behind the Piano Factory on Tremont Street (around the corner and through the residential parking lot) with a basement entrance near an enormous factory smoke stack. The theatre was established in the summer of 2011 with a mission “committed to developing new work with emerging theatre artists in the New England area.” The black box seating starts at floor/stage level and creates an intimate experience with only a few rows of seats. The price and location is ideal for college students, which were well represented in the audience, though there was a range of older patrons as well. Folks were eager and ready to appreciate the unique ideas and stunning performances by Boston theatre playwrights and actors. One note of caution – the one warm, clean, and neat bathroom, is located up the stairs in an unheated hall, put your coat back on if you need to use the facilities, especially if there is a line – while the show is Fire on Earth, it is cold out in the hallway.

Patrick Gabridge (Playwright) has a blog with a video of himself and the actors talking about the production at:

(Boston, MA) Fresh Ink Theatre begins 2013 with a play about faith, friendship, and the creation of the English Bible. John Tewkesbury is a savvy trader and smuggler, smart enough to know William Tyndale’s illegal translation of the Testament will be a hot commodity. But, to sell the good book, he must elude the spies of Sir Thomas More and escape the fires of the Catholic bishops. In this true story about the struggle between dangerous information and powerful knowledge, one man journeys from merchant to martyr. Presented by Fresh Ink Theatre. Runs February 1-16 at The Factory Theatre. 866-811-4111.