If Mother Teresa could see us all now, wondering how to play our parts, she might remind us that we can do no great things, only small things with great love. But more often than not in The Saint Plays, that great love gets channeled into the small things themselves. Factory 449 has a lot of stagecraft on display in their season opener. Yet the act ends up feeling less than charitable, and more than a little preoccupied with its own miracles.
It’s a bit of a surprise that one leaves the theater feeling cool and disassociated, since the show’s two-act collage of short plays and parables focuses on the lives of some of Christianity’s brightest stars – John the Baptist, Saint George, and Joan of Arc among them. Playwright Erik Ehn sees The Saint Plays as an ongoing series, all episodes of which are based on the lives of saints and other biblical figures. Factory 449 has chosen six of them for their run at Church Street, two of which are world premieres and one of which (The Monkey Seller) Ehn wrote specifically for this production.
The serendipitous amount of church space isn’t lost on director John Moletress. The design team uses the room to admirable effect, with a set by Greg Stevens that extends back to the far brick wall upstage and a foreground strewn with the detritus of a modern gypsy caravan: old stools, scraps of clothing and bits of set on wheels, all collected in a palette of unpolished wood, dusty cloth, soft leather and tarnished metal. It’s a storyteller’s stage, endowed with past lives and poised for reinvention.
The cast acts quickly on the impulse. In the first moments, a radio is pulled out of a creaky old chest like a lost treasure, and all ten members of the ensemble crowd around to hear it snap and fizzle to life. And there are definitely ghosts in this machine. The cascade of static and voice that emerges feeds the whole rest of the play and, although the radio motif fades in the second act, it’s a nice trick for floating a stream of souls through such a whirling, transformative space.
The flow of stories spotlights a modern-day Joan of Arc (Zehra Fazal) sacrificed in a war-torn city, then jumps into an intriguing but overlong chronicle of a Latin American massacre and its survivor Rufina Amaya (Lorena Sabogal). From there we pass through an insomniac Manhattan thick with grunge, into the wilderness of New Mexico, and on to imaginary oases and dreamscapes beyond. It’s a longform visual poem, sophisticated in style and physical choreography but dangerously thin on dramatic arc. The characters feel thick and declamatory and, ultimately, they prove forgettable. After two and a half hours, some nifty images remain, but the stories themselves have dissolved into the ether.
Perhaps not all of the adaptations in Ehn’s saint cycle lack buoyancy, but the ones featured here fail to stir the heart beyond sporadic moments of pity and empathy. The writing itself often feels glassy, comprised of capsules of language held up to the light to be studied. Ehn, who leads the playwriting program at Brown University, may be forgiven his more academic tinkerings with form, but to do so requires a production committed to endowing the exercise with a driving emotional heart and some nuance in character.
The ideas flowing from Moletress and his talented actors — many of whom play multiple roles, and all of whom sing — are not without merit. This is a proactive group of theatre-makers, one that has developed a sizable collection of interesting images and low-budget special effects. At times these tricks earn their moment to thrill. The decapitated head of John the Baptist (Sun King Davis) comes to mind, isolated atop the rippling glow of the coals in a Weber grill (just once of many sharp compositions in Cory Ryan Frank’s lighting design). A series of puppetry sequences, with puppets designed by cast member Betsy Rosen, engages our sympathies in unexpected ways. And Tom Carman proves himself a whiz on acoustic guitar, strumming and singing a good song of his own composition at show’s close.
The Saint Plays brings us a fair amount to admire, and if it doesn’t fully overcome the burden of displaying its own technique, it does sometimes make for a stimulating workshop on theatre magic. And occasionally, when the curtain of pretense slips, Factory 449 treats us to small, subtle moments that skim the sublime. Ultimately, though, the focus on the How undermines the What and Why. With a deeper, more caring focus on the core passions of these miraculous figures, we might have had the chance to rise higher.
The Saint Plays
By Erik Ehn
Directed by John Moletress
Produced by Factory 449
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
The Saint Plays runs thru Oct 10, 2010 at the Church Street Theatre.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.
THE SAINT PLAYS