Actors dramatize the difficult voyage of America's first colonists

Goodwife Nell Billington and servant girl Ellen Moore were, indeed, two of the original Pilgrims. One was the wife of a planter, or farmer, the other a servant girl to a family fleeing religious persecution. Although Ellen died in the so-called ``great sickness'' of the first winter of 1620, Nell survived to see her husband and sons receive the land they'd been promised by London merchant adventurers.

Never one to hide her feelings, Nell was known as something of a scold in those early years, and at one point she was put in the stocks, fined, and whipped for slander. For all the punishment that is detailed, the records fail to mention what she said about whom.

For the past six years, Nell's sharp tongue has found saucy interpretation in Marietta Mullin, a transplanted New Yorker with a love of history and a flair for the dramatic. Marietta's 12-year-old daughter, Nicole, who started acting in local summer theater productions at age 6, has portrayed the character of Ellen Moore for five years.

From early April through November, Marietta and Nicole are among the 19 ``interpreters'' who welcome tourists aboard the Mayflower II, a full-scale replica of the original Pilgrim ship and a vital part of the ``living museum'' that is Plimoth Plantation. As Nell and Ellen, they never come out of character - they know nothing of the 20th century, for example, and will answer questions about United States history or British rockers with a polite, albeit bemused, stare. But to inquiries about everyday life in the 17th century, as well as the Mayflower crossing, they are primed pumps of information.

With the rest of the Mayflower crew, Marietta attends three weeks of lectures every March, given by the staff of Plimoth Plantation. She passes along any historical revisions to her daughter, and also shares whatever bits she gleans from her constant reading.

``I'm always looking for 17th-century words and phrases to add flavor to the character. I think you get hooked on [reading about the period], because the more you know, the better you're going to do, and the more fun it is for everyone.''

Each interpreter is given a brief biography of his or her character by the Plimoth Plantation research staff. The information is understandably sketchy, and often includes no more than a name, age, town of birth, and names of known kinfolk.

``It's really up to you to decide what you want to do with your character,'' Marietta explains. ``One year, for example, I portrayed Aunt Fuller, and I made her very sweet and quiet. But I was so well behaved that the rest of the crew hated me, and Master Jones finally went to the plantation staff and said, `Look, no one's talking to her on the ship, she's boring. Can't we have Billington back?'''

British visitors, says Marietta, toss her some of the sharpest questions, and she jumps at the chance to return a verbal volley or two.

``Sometimes you'll meet up with people who come from the same village as your character, and you get talking with them about a local market or theater. You ask them, `Did you ever go to the Nottingham goose fair?' and then watch their eyes get wider and wider. And when you hear them whisper to each other, as they're walking away, `Well, she's definitely English!' that's a lot of satisfaction.''

Nicole, who was born in Plymouth and has grown up surrounded by Pilgrim history, says she's enjoyed learning more about the early colony by immersing herself in the character of the young girl that she portrays.

``At first, you start out thinking, `So, OK, the Pilgrims came here.' But when you really get into it, it's like, `Wow! Look at what these people did!''' -30-{et

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