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Cornbury: The Queen's Governor

Theatre Askew presents an uneven production of William M. Hoffman and Anthony Holland's play about the cross-dressing colonial governor. logo
Everett Quinton, Bianca Leigh, and David Greenspan
in Cornbury: The Queen's Governor
(© Gustavo Monroy)
In colonial times, Edward Hyde, the governor of New York and New Jersey purportedly liked to dress up in women's clothing -- specifically as his cousin Queen Anne, so as better to represent her. From this historical tidbit, playwrights William M. Hoffman and the now deceased Anthony Holland wove their farcical yet provocative script Cornbury: The Queen's Governor, now receiving an uneven production from Theatre Askew at the Hudson Guild Theatre.

Needless to say, the play takes quite a few liberties with historical facts. It follows Hyde, also known as Lord Cornbury (David Greenspan), who at first glance may seem an inept ruler, as he spends more money on his elaborate gowns than he does helping the fledgling colony survive. When told the treasury is empty, his response is "sell Staten Island." And yet, Cornbury is also depicted as a man who has a rather egalitarian view of people, including within his inner circle a Jewish advisor, Spinoza (Ken Kliban), a former African princess named Africa (Ashley Bryant), and a Native American called Munsee (Eugene the Poogene).

Along with his cross-dressing and rumored sodomy, such a progressive position puts him at odds with the Dutch citizenry he governs over. His primary opponents are the Pastor Cornelius Van Dam (Everett Quinton) and the Dutch lady, Margareta de Peyster (Bianca Leigh), whose semes to overthrow Cornbury comprise the bulk of the admittedly thin plot.

Greenspan delivers just the right combination of haughtiness and camp, even if he doesn't look very attractive in the dresses that costume designer Jeffrey Wallach has outfitted him in -- particularly the cheap-looking blue gown that he initially wears. Quinton plays his part broadly, but with an intensity that makes him both funny and mesmerizing. Similarly, Leigh chews up the scenery but does so in an entertaining manner. Christian Pederson makes a favorable impression as the pastor's son Rip, whose allegiance starts to shift following an encounter with Cornbury.

On the downside, several of the supporting players are incredibly weak. In particular, Tara Bast as barmaid Martha sings a duet with her lesbian partner Molly (Nomi Tichman), but can neither project nor carry a tune. Erik Sherr, in multiple parts, tries for the over-the-top zaniness of some of his fellow cast members, but only succeeds in coming off as fake and annoying.

Much of the blame has to be laid at the feet of director Tim Cusack, who has not been able to guide his company of actors in a coherent performance style. The production is also hampered by Mark Beard's set design, which requires numerous backdrops and set pieces that quickly become distracting, and at times upstage the action. At the performance I attended, a cardboard cutout chandelier that wouldn't stop spinning around drew my attention for much of one scene. In addition, the framing device that positions the show as a play within a play never really pays off, as it's not clear who is actually supposed to be presenting it.

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