We walk into the darkened Bedroom of Fort Fringe. There, in the shadowy corner of the stage, is a mannequin, with snow-white face above black clothes. The mannequin stares at us. Her eyes begin to move. She twitches, snarls, comes to life.
This is le Momo (Liz Salamon), and she appears to be imprisoned in this dark corner by some gravity she cannot shake. She pulls herself a few feet along one wall, and collapses back into the corner. She rolls a few times against another wall, and then rolls back. (I realize “le” is the masculine form, but the character is clearly a woman.) She is imprisoned. And then the play begins.
Father Jim (Tyler Budde), a Catholic priest, is presiding over what appears to be a homeless shelter. There, by a combination of fundraising, social activism, and hard service on his part and that of several volunteers, he manages to keep a hundred or so of America’s least wanted from starvation and the elements. He is in a room, conducting a prayer meeting with some young volunteers: Paul (Sean Sidbury), Debbie (Liz Kinder) and Sue (Molly MacKenzie).
Gretchen (Rachel Viele) is also there. Gretchen is Father Jim’s wife, and thus the magnitude of his dilemma becomes clear early. Having chosen marriage over his priestly vocation, he has been defrocked, and although he has appealed, the Church has told him that he must reapply for the priesthood. It is unclear whether he will; it is also unclear whether Gretchen wants him to do so.
Suddenly, the young people begin speaking in tongues. After a few minutes of this, le Momo appears, and answers them in tongues. The tongue, in this case, is French.
le Momo is a tortured spirit of an unspecified kind. She coerces those in the room to participate in some sort of ritual which will, she promises, allow her to resurrect herself. She hands each of them a few pages from a script. Gretchen believes that it is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, but Father Jim has a more sinister explanation: it is an effort to stage a black mass. He attempts an exorcism. It does not go well.
Jesus le MOMO deepens the air of mystery by having much of le Momo’s dialogue in a different language from that of her fellow characters and most of the audience. About a third of her dialogue is in English; English comes in at crucial moments when it is necessary to move the plot along. For the rest of the play, the other characters are merely guessing at what le Momo means as she furiously rages out her commands. (I do not know what this experience is like for French speakers in the audience).
Salamon is fabulous at all this. She spits, jumps and whirls her way through the dialogue like a demonic dervish, her body quivering in intensity and frustration over the ignorant and recalcitrant responses of the people she is trying to work her will upon. Although we do not know what she is saying, her intent is unmistakable.
Of course, such a performance is impossible without appropriate responses from the rest of the cast, so it is fair to call it a six-person conspiracy (seven, counting director Adi Stein).
Playwright JR Foley attempts an enormously ambitious thing with Jesus le MOMO. It is not Dadaist or absurd, as some of the play’s publicity suggests. It is a conventional narrative, which Foley has honed by working with Ernie Joselovitz’s excellent Playwright’s Forum, and Foley’s care and polish is evident.
Regrettably, it has too many loose ends for my taste. Late in the play, le Momo invokes Antonin Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty, which sought to shatter what Artaud considered a false reality shrouding us from the truth. Is le Momo actually Artaud, come to rid Father Jim and Gretchen of the delusions which prevent them from honestly confronting his choice between marriage and the priesthood? The program’s cover graces us with Man Ray’s photo of Artaud, and the final speech le Momo prepares for reading is actually derived from Artaud’s final work, Pour en Finir avec le Jugement de dieu. (To Have Done with the Judgment of god). But we never know for certain, and we never know how things are resolved.
Foley’s real nemesis may be the nature of a Fringe show, where the steaming heat and the semi-comfortable seating operate to limit our attention spans. Developed into a more leisurely length, Jesus le Momo might be a provocative piece which accomplishes some of the things Artaud himself sought to accomplish; at forty-five minutes, though, it just scratches the surface.
Jesus le MOMO has 6 shows, ending July 28, 2012, at The Bedroom at Fort Fringe, 610 L St NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
Tim rates this 3 out of a possible 5.