BEYOND BELIEF

Sometimes you have to be beastly to be kind. And as beastly as Geniuses, Madmen, and Saints can be, all British playwright Peter Barnes's rage and wit is directed at what is most vicious and self-deceptive in human beings--particularly those who use religion as a cloak for peculiar vices.

The harsh attack on pious impiety in this timely pair of one-acts by the author of The Ruling Class may be difficult for authentically religious people to take (there's a lot of crudity and some self-conscious blasphemy). But it's inauthentic religious cant Barnes is after--the bogus, the banal and the self-serving. And by extension, his covert message is actually oddly devout: Religion without love is murderous. A lively production by CityStage Ensemble stumbles somewhat over its own intentions but rivets the imagination: No way are you going to leave the theater and not think about the issues.

The evening opens with "Leonardo's Last Supper," a very black view of business versus art. As the lights dim, Renaissance music sets the mood. Simplistic voice-over narration provides a textbook-style intro to the Renaissance and what it meant to the world. Then monks carry in the body of Leonardo da Vinci, covered in black crepe. A local mortician named Angelo and his wife, Maria, dance a little jig of joy over their prestigious acquisition--their charnel house gets to prepare and bury the body of one of the greatest geniuses of their century.

Leonardo wakes from his coma to find himself among these reprobate entrepreneurs. He doesn't believe he is alive--in fact, he's sure he's in hell. But the squabbling family soon convinces him otherwise. Angelo, Maria and their son fuss and fume, dropping biblical and theological allusions, crossing themselves often, praying for revenge on their enemies and generally taking the name of the Lord in vain.

Leonardo, the consummate Renaissance man--philosopher, inventor, scientist, artist--finds himself at the mercy of these merciless scum, who justify their misspent lives with pious pretensions. The genius hasn't a chance.

Kurt Soderstrom plays Angelo with dark glee--a bit overdrawn at first, but calculatingly funny at last. Therese Pickard seems too young for the role of Maria, though she is an inventive and energetic actor. Dan Driver looks uncomfortable at first as the son, but he warms up. It's Stephen Sealy as Leonardo who steals the show--he's earthy, witty and believable.

The second one-act, "Noonday Demons," suggests that true religion cannot be practiced in isolation. Saint Eusebius, a hermit with a heart of stone, stands on a brick in a desert cave praying nonstop, punishing himself extravagantly and living off seven olives a day. He's tempted by the devil, who offers to turn excrement to gold--and it's important to note here that Beelzebub is a lot more interesting and a lot wittier than Eusebius. Dan Hiester gives a tour-de-force performance in both roles--the lighting changes to red when he's the devil and blue when he's the saint.

Into this horrifically masochistic setting comes Saint Pior (played with just the right irritating mosquito whine by Guy Williams), who challenges Eusebius for the rights to the cave. They battle over who is most saintly--enumerating all the self-inflicted tortures and privations they have endured for God in a horrendous game of one-upmanship that gets steadily more ludicrous until one of them is strangled by the other. If I'm not mistaken, all of the tortures described were actually practiced by various medieval "saints." And it's all repulsively relevant today. You have only to pick up a newspaper or magazine to find contemporary versions of maniacal religious expression all over the world--hate institutionalized in the name of love and violence propagated in the name of peace.

There is, however, such a thing as beating a subject to death, and Barnes is no master of restraint. The playwright knows the Bible--along with history and theology--thoroughly. But he's so obsessed with the failures of religious people to actually love their neighbors as themselves that he gets mired in a kind of leftist head-banging. Despite strong, intelligent direction by Christopher Leo, Barnes overstates his thesis in both plays, and both urgently need cutting. "Noonday Demons" actually gets numbing in places--it cries out for a serious fifteen- to twenty-minute trim.

Barnes appears to want religion to be better than it is (a laudable sentiment), to live up to its own ideals. Yet he doesn't appear to believe it can. It's a kind of bleak irony about his work that while he denounces all his characters as fools, madmen or hypocrites for failing to do the good they profess to believe in, he himself seems to have lost all hope in humankind.

 
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