May 06, 2006

Happy are those who are called

Tonight's offering in the Studio was The fifth sun, a play about assassinated archbishop Óscar Romero. Had it been a play being workshopped, I would have said "right on": the premise was solid, the topic was interesting, and there were many instances of good lines and good acting. As a finished work, though, I found it a bit lacking.

It was handicapped from the start by the script. Though sprinkled with some great one-liners and a few good dialogues and monologues, it really needed a lot of tightening up. There were several places where the writing got a bit tedious, and some awkward interactions between the characters that no amount of good acting could have saved.

And there was a bit of good acting, but not as much as I'd've liked. I was surprised how few of the Studio Theatre regulars were involved in this production; with, I think, two exceptions, most of the actors were very inexperienced. It showed. Romero himself kept doubling over in what I gather was pain from an ulcer, but it was pretty unconvincing. The papal nuncio could probably have been played either as evil or as aloof or even as self-absorbed; there were stabs in these directions, but a lot of it just felt like he was reading lines. Many of them still hadn't overcome the beginner instinct to stick their neck forward and move their hands awkwardly. Nearly everyone had a few nice moments, but then fell back into reading lines again.

Emily Richardson was lucky enough to get a part with a lot of witty lines, and she really came through as a slightly sarcastic feminist nun, flawed and human but full of compassion and concern for the social injustice the Salvadoran people were being subjected to. She served well as Romero's conscience, the angel on Romero's one shoulder against Jon Gripshover's devil on the other. The character dynamic between these two was among the most interesting and effective in the show, with the debates between her pragmatism and his marxism providing some good exposition of the ethical, religious, and political tangles through which they navigate their common cause.

The staging was interesting. The stage itself was a dais on the long wall of the studio, extending out in a thrust configuration with seating on three sides. That presents many of the usual in-the-round difficulties, but there were only a few instances where the actors did any weird and unmotivated walking around (that I noticed, anyway). The top of the dais was a pulpit, which Romero took on a few occasions for a homily or a Mass; good dramatic placement. Most interesting, though, was the everpresent group of dancers, a sort of Greek chorus—four of them, switching between playing Mayan goddesses, villagers, and the occasional bit part, and sitting in quiet observation for the rest of the time. They frequently spoke in unison, and did modern dance during their parts that highlighted their otherworldliness. For all that I diss modern dance from time to time, it was deployed very effectively here.

The director, Chris Storey, had mentioned to me a few weeks ago that he was doing this play, and he especially recommended that I come; he thought I would find it especially relevant and interesting since I'm Catholic. Which was probably an accurate observation, but particularly given that he was aware of this important aspect of the show, I think the most disappointing thing about the show was how thoroughly it dropped the ball on its Catholic ties. While the show clearly has its merits for non-Catholics and even non-Christians, there are many, many places that draw on Catholic experience and can be quite a bit more dramatic and powerful for those familiar with Catholicism.

For instance, in the last scene we see Romero celebrating a Mass, working his way through the Liturgy of the Eucharist. There is all sorts of powerful symbolism in this scene, and major tension because the audience all knows that the archbishop is about to be assassinated. And yet, it is painfully obvious that the guy who played Romero has never seen a Mass celebrated. It's a little distracting, and it robs the scene of the transcendent power it could have had.

Speaking of distracting, the costuming was bizarre. Post-Vatican II priestly garb has got to be the easiest costume in the world—black shirt, black pants, and a white tab folded over the collar, but nobody wore that. One of the priests wore this poncho thing that looked a little bit like a Franciscan habit (but he was a Jesuit, I think) and a little bit like Salvadoran native garb. The archbishop and the nuncio were wearing billowy black PhD robes with, respectively, a red stole and a white stole. Meanwhile, the nun wore more-or-less modern street clothes (which given the character was probably accurate, but certainly marks the proceedings as distinctly post-Vatican II). Now, I'm not looking for a perfect facsimile of bishop's garb, not even if the show had a budget to work with. But especially for the priests and arguably for the other two, they'd've been much better served to simply go with all-black plus a roman collar. If they felt they had to go with something cassock-like, something that actually resembled a cassock would've been good, maybe with purple sash and skullcap as easy and cheap accessories. As it was, the costuming was distracting and gave the (possibly inaccurate) impression that the nearest any of them had been to a Catholic priest was hearing someone tell them about a movie about Baptist ministers.

All of which is not to say that it was a terrible show. Disappointing, yes, but still worth seeing. Particularly if you find it thematically interesting—for Catholics, for social-justice progressives, and for those interested in Latin American history, this show is one you really ought to see.

"God is a good marxist, Monseñor. He takes from each according to his ability, and gives to each according to his need." --Nicholas Patricca, The fifth sun (Hector)

Posted by blahedo at 2:04am on 6 May 2006
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