February 15, 2008

Instruments of faith

I just got back from this week's Studio offering, and boy do I have a lot to say. It was a production of "Instruments of faith", a one-act written by Jacquelin Hedeman two years ago, then a junior in high school (at Uni High of Urbana, so she's even relatively local). The subject matter is some pretty heavy stuff: a reaction to Pope Benedict's 2005 pronouncement on gay seminarians. To the extent that the play presents an argument, it is similar in theme to my post "De sacerdotibus homosexualis" from that period, though my post was a response to the pronouncement in general, and this play is more specifically addressing the concurrent investigation of all U.S. seminaries. Other than the brief flirt with donatism near the end, I still stand by the analysis in that post, and so of course I was sympathetic to Hedeman's message.

Not, I should point out, that that message was an unambiguous black-and-white analysis (which would certainly have made for a very boring morality play). Rather, there is some fairly clever use of the different characters to show the different angles on the issue. Good people don't react all in the same way, but the play isn't shy about showing the viciousness of the spiritual attack on many people that the instrumentum laboris consisted of. The vindictive McCarthy character, Father Pascal, is a truly nasty piece of work, and I wish I could say that he was a caricature and there aren't really any Catholics like that, but I am not at all confident of that; I am comforted that at the least none of the Catholics I know personally are like that. The conclusion seems quite open-ended: it doesn't really give any indication what happens to the characters afterward, but of course as a short story (as it were), it doesn't need to.

The production was a first effort for many of the people involved, I think, including the director (Meredith Noseworthy, who was one of my FP students last year) and several of the actors. The inexperience showed in a few parts, but in general, I think they're going places. The start was a bit slow—and the abrupt shortness of many of the early scenes probably didn't help—but once they established a flow, the actors were able to keep it going without dropping the ball. There were occasional line flubs, and quite a few of the actors need to work on their cutoff lines. Most of them were able to shake off the woodenness and monotone of the first couple scenes to give a much more natural "read" to the scene, though, and certainly by the time we moved from tense anticipation of conflict to the high emotion itself they were in good form. Jay Robillard managed to flush his cheeks in anger and hold his voice just this side of cracking on his line about the chaste men in the house of God (a great line which I wish I'd thought to record verbatim—I'll have to go look it up later). Lauren Neiheisel, playing Dr. Turner—the only woman on the seminary faculty—was one of the actors I was seeing for the first time, and also one of the best; she shone as the only actor who never once looked like she was Acting. She was just Dr. Turner. (In that, it probably helped that she was the only actor who wasn't playing a priest or seminarian, and therefore somewhat less outside her own experience. :) Overall, it was a good show, and I just wish more of the local Catholics had gone to see it so that I could talk to them about it...

After a brief intermission, we were presented with a more informal scene reading of a couple of two-person scenes written by Knox Creative Writing majors. It turned out to be Catholic Night in the Studio, apparently; the first of these was about a relationship where Catholicism figured pretty heavily into the "it's complicated", and it at least got a brief mention in the second. The actors in these were somewhat rehearsed, but weren't in any particular costume and were carrying their scripts; I found this decided informality to be quite charming and intimate, and really enjoyed the experience. I do hope that the theatre/creative writing folks try to put these Playwright's Workshop segments together a little more often.

Not that the pieces themselves were perfect, of course, nor would one expect them to be. The first (by McKinley Murphy, who I know from the NOLA trip last year) was a little disjointed and had a hard time nailing the flow of real-sounding dialogue. The character development was a tad abrupt—one character went from "what? you like me?" to "you have to commit to me!" very fast and without enough transition to put her there. And I definitely object to the characterisation of Catholicism in this one, with lines like "Catholicism and Christianity are just different, that's all", and the Catholic character saying he couldn't go to Newman Club because he knew that one member lied, one cheated, and one had had an abortion—not that there aren't such holier-than-thou folks out there, in Catholicism as anywhere else, but a lengthy middle chunk of the play hashed out this point for long enough that it started to come across as some sort of propaganda play for this viewpoint. On the other hand, for all of my complaining about sections that need work, it was a good capture of the angsty, irrational late-teen It's Complicated, and I hope she polishes it up rather than dropping it.

The last piece I have a lot less to say about, other than I wish I knew more of the backstory of these characters! Brittany Alsot (another person I met on the NOLA trip, oddly enough) wrote a fairly tight little play about a college girl visiting Oxford via Barcelona, with some sort of long-distance boyfriend back home in the US, talking to a philosophy student(?) who is from Oxford and who she met that morning. They really hit it off and have some really genuine-sounding erudite dialogue—although, as I commented to her after the show, she wrote some of the geekiest laugh lines ever, and the great thing about seeing this at a place like Knox is that the rest of the audience laughed at them too. :) But (and this just shows that the author drew me in very thoroughly) I still kept feeling like I was being teased with a thin trickle of details as I started investing myself in the characters. Still curious! And then the scene, and show, and evening, end. I did enjoy it. :)

"I encourage us to teach history backwards & outwards. No one's doomed to repeat history just because they think Plato used to be a planet, but we're certain to repeat it if we can't remember the twenty five years before we were born or who built our town's water way." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 10:13pm on 15 Feb 2008
Your link to "instrumentum laboris" is incorrect; seems to be missing a "/wiki/". Posted by Kelly Martin at 8:57am on 16 Feb 2008
Fixed, thx. Posted by blahedo at 2:12pm on 16 Feb 2008
I just Googled my name and was surprised to find that one of the top 10 hits was this reference to my play in your blog. Imagine that! Oh Google... Posted by Brittany at 11:21pm on 21 May 2009
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