Two plays recently produced Off-Off-Broadway (and in wildly divergent locales) cogitate over what the individual is driven to do by faith, and on the psychic and emotional tugs and jerks that result from a collective need for a church. One honors a man's zealous defense of the sanctity of his church; the other burrows into the soul of a man whose personal pain has driven him to flail at the foundations of the church he loves. One was written by a titan of the Western canon, the other by a brash newcomer with enormous theatrical potential.
The Mystic Theatre Company sets as its mission the exploration and celebration of ``the heightened language of contemporary verse drama,'' which merits some comment in and of itself. Versification as a dramatic device has its advantages in that natural rhythmic emphases and recurrent orders of imagery can powerfully evoke emotion through sense impressions. The troupe's mission dovetails with Eliot's goal to revivify the tradition of poetic theatre in England with his 1935 Murder in the Cathedral. Anglophile history buffs or those familiar with Anouilh's Becket are doubtless acquainted with the essentials of plot: Henry II has cut the power of the clergy and the Barons. He has installed his Chancellor, Thomas Becket, as Archbishop of Canterbury, who suddenly finds the true faith and turns on his former sponsor, supporting the integrity of the church. He is eventually martyred when Henry has him assassinated.
Eliot's language borrows from liturgical patterns and ritualistic delivery by a chorus of the women of Canterbury. The villains speak in colloquial manner. The ensemble's ability to deliver on the metrical effect of the verse is paramount to a production's success, and here the Mystic's corps of actors achieved a very mixed success. As Becket, Thomas McCann possessed a supreme command of technique wedded to a molten inner polestar which is revealed on his path to self-knowledge and spiritual purification as he is led to ``what beyond death is not death.'' Jim DeMonic also had a firm grip on the stylistic demands of the text and was splendidly entertaining in his razor-sharp delivery as a tempter of Becket's worldly senses, and in his fatuous rationalizations as one of the Archbishop's assassins. And Jon-Michael Hernendez delivered a nicely cheeky turn as a less-than-reverent herald of Becket's return. But the rest of the troupe seemed not to have the requisite chops to master the verse, either getting mired in its rhythmic cadences or sloppily glossing over them.
Director Mark Bloom staged the work with a taut visual elegance. The murder itself was morally jarring with unsettling blackouts timed to each swordblow. The production was also aurally alive with a fascinating lute and percussion sound design by Peter Griggs. Bloom did misfire, though, with some extremely silly contortion danced by female chorus on the pews of The Little Church Around the Corner, where the play was staged. Although the environmental staging of the play in an actual church was no new device, it still worked well as a total experience with its sense of a passion play before the altar and the smell of incense and tallow adding to the whole effect. Mary Anise's costume designs included many sharply imagined period ensembles, hut there were a few conspicuous anachronisms, such as the priest's modern vestments.
The Mystic Company's goal of popularizing verse drama is an original and worthwhile one. As long as they steer clear of the closet dramas like Milton's, which were never meant to be staged, and focus on works like the verse epics of Rolf Hochhuth and Howard Sackler, which have been sadly neglected in recent years, they have a bright future indeed.
Donkey Bar by John Coyle was also semi-environmental in its staging. In order to get to the seats at the Kraine Theatre, one had to walk through the set of ``Shamrock's Bar,'' where regulars were already settling in for a Friday night's bacchanalia. Very early into the action, a new, unfamiliar customer takes the other patrons hostage, claiming to have a bomb in his briefcase, and demands to meet with the Cardinal of St. Patrick's Cathedral, located only a few blocks away. What ensues is a comic hybrid of The Petrified Forest and The Iceman Cometh, with playwright/actor Coyle as a neo-Hickey disabusing the Shamrock's habitues of their comfortable notions of existence. Throughout the action, though, Coyle alternates some very funny, astutely observed character sketches with a searingly passionate, anti-sentimental search for relevance within the church the main character finds so central yet so spiritually remote from his existence. Coyle does occasionally give in to the temptation to preach, and his ultimate philosophical angle seems something less than clearly decipherable. But this is a work of sharp dramatic instincts and a natural gift for dialogue, tension, and comedy serving a dramatic end.
The cast was exceptionally good, with only Gail Denison misfiring somewhat. She had a keenly observed look of the good-natured barfly, but too often overdid her readings with a farcically broad delivery out of synch with the rest of the actors. To anyone who's ever frequented an Irish dive, Frederick Ainsworth's reading of a raspy-voiced street philosophe will ring with vibrant veracity. As the protaganist, Boyle himself exuded a heartfelt passion and a sly intellect, physically and emotionally suggesting an Irish Quentin Tarrantino.William Steel's unforced gravitas as a local bookie made one long for more of his presence. Lucy Avery Brooke's Irish barkeep was a solid, thoughtful characterization with flashes of offhand wit. And George Santana's proletarian sage had just the perfect admixture of gutter wisdom and abject bullshit.
Set designer Kimo James has obviously studied the environment. And director Ross Minichiello may give in to some sitcom blocking motifs, but he's got an admirable sense of pacing and a definite feel for the characters.
Murder in the Cathedral and Donkey Bar offered two unique perspectives on the church as a motivating influence on our lives. Both were worthwhile vehicles for their respective companies' efforts.
Murder in the Cathedral:
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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