Tam Lin, The Producers Club, New York, New York, USA (October 30, 2003)

The Scottish legend of Tam Lin has endured through centuries of telling and re-telling. Many versions exist of this Halloween tale of love and struggle with supernatural entities, with each new teller bringing something different to the story. Most of the myriad takes on the folk tale have been passed down through the ages as songs, of which many were collected and preserved by the renowned English folklorist, Cecil Sharp. The most famous version of the song "Tam Lin," recorded by Fairport Convention for their classic 1969 album Liege and Lief, comes from Sharp's collection. Now, playwright Nancy G. McClernan has created a theatrical version of Tam Lin, taking the base story as depicted in the folk song and fleshing out the details with some additional characters and situations. Directed by Synge Maher, and billed as "a Halloween romantic comedy," Tam Lin ran for a couple of days before and after Halloween at The Producers Club in New York, and is already slated for a similar run next autumn.

Before the play began, Erika Lieberman put the audience into the proper frame of mind by performing a series of English and Celtic tunes from the Renaissance on her Irish harp. Her playing was quite nice, but unfortunately the mood was lost as the seats filled up, because the conversations began to drown out the harp (I was also disappointed that nobody held a lighter up when she played "Greensleeves" - I guess it wasn't that kind of crowd.).

The play begins deep in the forest of Carterhaugh, in Medieval Scotland. The woods, at least from the human perspective, belong to the Roxbrugh family, who are embroiled in a prolonged conflict with one Lord Dunbar. Lady Roxbrugh (Karen Sweeney) had placed the hopes of her family on her grandson Thomas (played by Nick Lowe, a young local actor, not the veteran English rock singer). However, Thomas picked the wrong night - Halloween night - to ride through the woods on an errand. On this night the mortal world and the faerie world intersect, and one can be taken from one world into the other. The faeries, led by the sensual Faerie Queen (Alice Connorton), speak in rhyme throughout the play. The queen is struck by Thomas' beauty as she sees him riding, and orders her elven knights to ensnare him. Having captured Thomas, she renames him Tam Lin. Tam Lin spends the next seven years primarily as the Faerie Queen's love slave, but he also has one other task. The Faerie Queen likes the mantels, cloaks and jewelry of mortal maidens, and any time a maiden plucks a rose from a bush in the forest, Tam Lin appears, demanding the maiden to offer up her mantel, or else her virginity.

In the meantime, things have gone poorly for the hapless Roxbrughs, and Lord Dunbar (Jamesai Schempp) schemes to bolster his military position by marrying his daughter Janet (Erica Russo) to his powerful ally Lord Aberdeen (played by Kelsey Grammer look-alike Bruce Barton). Janet, a free-spirited young lady fond of archery, wants no part of the marriage, despite the strong vote of confidence Aberdeen gets from Janet's lady-in-waiting, Margaret (Janice Mann). Dunbar leaves Aberdeen in charge of his castle as he goes off to battle, in the hope that Janet will relent as she and Aberdeen get to know each other. Janet proves to be intractable, however, and Aberdeen disciplines her by locking her in her room. Feeling guilty that night, Aberdeen enters Janet's darkened bedchamber. Janet had already escaped through the window, though, and Margaret, upon discovering this, had taken Janet's place in her bed. Naturally, Margaret much more gladly accepts Aberdeen's affections than Janet would have. Aberdeen in turn is startled, but far from disappointed, by the advances made on him by the woman he believes in the dark to be his fiancée. Janet, meanwhile, finds herself in Carterhaugh, plucking roses from a certain bush. All previous maidens had happily offered their mantels and jewelry to Tam Lin in order to preserve their virginity, but Janet had other ideas. Tam Lin regains his mortal sensations upon feeling Janet's touch, and the rest is, well, the stuff of legend. Janet returns to Dunbar's castle - with her mantel - promising to meet Tam Lin again at the autumnal equinox, when the Faerie Queen would be distracted. Two things prevent this rendezvous from happening, however. First, Lord Dunbar returns and wedding plans begin in earnest. Second, Janet falls ill with symptoms curiously resembling those of morning sickness. Margaret, with whom Janet had gladly traded beds on her return, is not feeling so good herself.

The second act begins with Dunbar, who believes that Janet is pregnant with Aberdeen's child, proceeding with his military ambitions. He annexes a large chunk of Roxbrugh territory, including Carterhaugh, and plans a major offensive against the Roxbrughs as soon as the wedding ceremony, set for the day after Halloween, is completed. Aberdeen, on the other hand, has caught on, and begins to rue his impending union with Janet and separation from Margaret. Janet has no intentions of going through with the marriage, and on Halloween, she once again sneaks out of the castle. She ties her kirtle green a bit above her knee, and she goes to Carterhaugh as fast as go can she. Aberdeen and Margaret follow closely after, fearing that some evil will befall her. Janet meets Tam Lin, who explains that to restore his mortality she must grab him in the middle of a faerie procession that very night, and hold him tight as the Faerie Queen makes him undergo a series of hideous transformations. They receive some unlikely assistance from the Faerie Queen's elvish knights, who have grown exceedingly jealous of the attention Tam Lin gets from the Faerie Queen and are eager to be rid of him. Meanwhile, Tam Lin's mortal kinsman Sterling (Skid Maher), the well-intentioned but only occasionally clever leader of the battered Roxbrugh forces, plots to abduct Janet before she can leave the forest, thereby forcing Dunbar to negotiate with Lady Roxbrugh from a position of weakness.

Does everything end happily? Well, Tam Lin is billed as a romantic comedy, not a tragedy. If it is McClernan's intent to present the legend as a Shakespearean comedy, she generally succeeds. The comedy works well when it relies on the situations to generate the humor, but the dialogue does not always keep its end of the bargain. While having the faeries speak in rhyme and the humans speak in prose is an excellent idea on paper, much of the rhyming comes across as forced. Many of the play's punch lines seem forced as well, and some of the humor veers a little too far towards kitsch. McClernan plays around with contemporary American perspectives on traditional Scottish culture for some of the jokes, and misses as often as she hits. For example, at the end of the first act, Janet and Margaret both become nauseous at the mention of haggis being prepared for breakfast. This is amusing, but when Lord Dunbar concludes the act by exclaiming, "I love the smell of haggis in the morning!", the play ventures over a line best left uncrossed.

Despite having performed for a couple of days prior to my attendance, the actors left the impression that more rehearsals were needed. Everybody rushed through their lines a little too quickly, especially Janet. There were also several points in the play where actors stammered over their lines. One or two such incidents in a play are forgivable, but it happened often enough to be very noticeable. Synge Maher needs to do a better job of getting the performers to relax. The props and the costuming served their purpose well, making the most of a limited budget, but the climactic scene of the play should have been more dramatic visually. Musically, each scene involving human characters is preceded by a recording of Lieberman's harp playing, while each faerie scene begins with a very eerie low whistle. The whistle created the image of a dark, enchanted forest as well as any elaborate props could have done, and proved to be the nicest touch of the evening.

As I walked out of The Producers Club after the performance, I couldn't help hoping that the makers of Tam Lin regard it as a work in progress, and not a finished product. As it stands, McClernan and Maher started with a great idea and a timeless story and have created a halfway decent play out of it. There were enough funny moments to make the evening worthwhile, and the play did a nice job of clarifying and expanding on the details of the song, but the legend of Tam Lin deserves a more consistent interpretation than it received here.


[Scott Gianelli]

For a comprehensive site dealing with every facet of the Tam Lin legend, click here.