Passionless Christianity

The Chancellor's Tale pays lip service to the Church.

Everything about The Chancellor's Tale screams Quality Production. Pay Attention. Serious Topic. And, indeed, it's a timely exploration of some of the issues currently tearing at the fabric of the Church: homosexuality, the Church's responsibility for the poor, the struggle of priests to contain their own sexual drives. But the whole thing is so damply earnest and talky that any spark of life is extinguished.

Why should we care about the moral struggles of the clergy? Graham Greene made us care in The Power and the Glorywhen he showed us a hapless, drunken priest on the run in 1920s Mexico, where authorities were closing down churches and forcing priests to choose between death and marriage. The whiskey priest, as Greene called him, was bitterly aware of his own shortcomings. But he was also compelled to continue administering the sacrament -- risking his life in villages where anyone in his makeshift congregation might turn out to be a betrayer -- because he believed that grace could move through even his cowardly and corrupted body. We cared because the stakes were high, because we could feel the priest's shame and contaminated courage, because even though you can't capture the transcendent in words -- you have to talk around it, and hint at it, and point in its general direction -- Greene did manage to communicate his longing for revelation, as well as his grief at human cruelty.

By contrast, every character in The Chancellor's Tale is a stock figure embodying a concept. There's Ellen, the feminist theologian, who speaks of God as "she," chides the Church for its attitude toward women, preaches a kind of feisty freedom and is in love with the radical priest, Frank. Frank -- clearly a version of St. Francis -- has chosen to serve the poor and oppressed and has recently witnessed the union of two lesbians, though we're never sure if he's motivated more by a love of humanity or by ego. Naturally, the play introduces a theologian, Peter (yeah, the rock), a spokesman for all of the Church's most misogynist and repressive principles. After betraying everyone else, Peter turns out to have urges himself. The most complex character is father figure Joseph, the chancellor charged with overseeing activities and responsible for mediating between Frank and the punitive higher-ups. Joseph, too, has urges. He subsumes them by going out at night to the city's sleaziest venues and ministering to prostitutes and rent boys. Just ministering. Though he lusts for the boys, he refrains from sex.

David Harms (from left), Marcus Waterman, Jim Hunt 
and Gabriella Cavallero in The Chancellor's 
Tale.
David Harms (from left), Marcus Waterman, Jim Hunt and Gabriella Cavallero in The Chancellor's Tale.

Author Paul Mohrbacher obviously knows this world well and has thought long and deeply on the issues, but his script is oddly passionless. The lesbian couple never appear on stage; they're really nothing but symbols. We know Ellen and Frank love each other, but their scenes together sound fake and slightly arch. When Ellen eventually tells Frank that if he won't marry her she'll leave town, his manner remains as rueful and ironic as it has been all along. Is there ice water in this man's veins? Is he capable of feeling at all? Even when he's smiling benignly on his flock, one feels the chill. And his lighthearted comment in a letter from Central America that he's practicing liberation theology and has landed on a death-squad hit list feels utterly blind and stupid, given all the nuns and priests who sacrificed their lives in that region and the words of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador the day before his murder: "In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: Stop the repression." Why would a playwright condense this world of pain and horror into a throwaway line, intended, as far as I could tell, to do no more than illustrate Frank's cool?

Wouldn't it be interesting if rigid little Peter, played by David Harms, were more than a mouthpiece, if he had an ear for gossip or a weakness for beer and chicken wings? What's an actor to do with a role this narrow? Gabriella Cavallero has one nice speech as Ellen, and she delivers it with pleasing simplicity. I really don't know if Frank's annoying aloofness is the fault of the play or of actor Marcus Waterman. Jim Hunt brings a mix of weary strength and whimsical humor to the character of Joseph, but making the character ring true is more than flesh and blood can accomplish.

 
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