Faith and politics. God and king. Those are the weighty affairs teetering in the balance of T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.
Compass Rose Theater recently turned its intimate space into a feline playground when it produced another work featuring the verse of the American-English poet, Cats. Now, the Spa Road location stands in for Canterbury Cathedral where Archbishop Thomas Becket faces temptation, his own conscience, and his own mortality. From Eliot’s most frivolous poems to his short play that is lean on action but rich in imagery and intellect is quite a leap. Leave it to Compass Rose to accomplish such a bound and do it with style.
Premiering in 1935, Murder in the Cathedral dramatizes the last days of Becket, arriving from his self-imposed exile in France, leading up to his assassination in his beloved cathedral in the year 1170. The archbishop left England fearing the wrath of King Henry II. Why would two such close friends be at such volatile odds with each other? Allegiance. Henry’s pride could not handle Becket’s devotion to God and his refusal to submit to the authority of the monarchy.
If these plot points sound familiar, aside from Murder in the Cathedral, Jean Anouilh delved more into the friendship and betrayal in his 1959 drama Becket. There, both Henry and Thomas are portrayed and the relationship is fully examined. Eliot keeps the English King offstage, yet his presence looms over the play and his former confidant. Since Becket can no longer spar with the king himself over affairs of church and state, the bishop wrestles with his own conscience. He faces temptation personified when he is visited by four figures – one might even be the Devil himself – and gains strength in his conviction to serve God. “The last temptation is the greatest treason; To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
In spite of vivid imagery and heady subject matter, the overall effect of the play is austere rather than passionate.
That is not to say the performances are not passionate or lacking impact. As the troubled Archbishop, the distinguished actor Charles Matheny is the picture of eloquence and authority. Matheny masterfully conveys Becket’s internal struggle as the man who puts his faith and God above the crown of England.
January 30 – March 8, 2015
Compass Rose Studio Theater
49 Spa Road
Annapolis, MD 21401
1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
Thursdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
or call Box Office:410-980-6662
Serving as both the silver-tongued tempters and the assassins who come to dispatch Becket, Ryan Salusung, J. Hayes Biche, Christopher Williams and Ray Schultz match Matheny as commanding performers, mining the nuances of their roles and Eliot’s rich verse.
As two Canterbury priests, Thomas Beheler and Thomas Peter do their part to serve the archbishop.
Most impressive was the work of the chorus, representing the women of Canterbury, devoted members of the church and parishioners of Becket. Crisp diction, magnificent vocal control and individual characterizations all combine to stunning effect. Spanning in age from teenagers to mature women, the ladies of the chorus include Ali Evarts, Eliza Geib, Nancy Lindner, Liza Skinner, Chelsea Tuffy and McKenzie Vergauwen.
Director Lucinda Merry-Browne keeps the production simple and nearly unadorned, save for a floor to ceiling stained glass window, achieved by an evocative lighting effect by designer Ashley Swiger. Joseph Powell, Sr. provides a bare, black stage with scaffolding.
Merry-Brown chose modern dress – by designer Renee Vergauwen – to place the drama in context to our own experience. When we think of recent years and how Catholic Americans struggled with perceptions of religious freedom and the authority of the state over contraception, Murder in the Cathedral moves from the middle ages to modern times with little effort.
Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot . Directed by Lucinda Merry-Browne . Featuring Charles Matheny, Thomas Beheler, Thomas Peter, J. Mayes Biche, Ryan Dalusung, Christopher Williams, Ray Schultz, Ali Evarts, Eliza Geib, Nancy Lindner, Liza Skinner, Chelsea Tuffy, and McKenzie Vergauwen . Set Design: Joseph Powell, Sr. . Costume Design: Renee Vergauwen . Lighting Design: Ashley Swiger . Props: Mary Ruth Cowgill . Master Electrician: Zack Riviere . Stage Manager: Liz Rankin . Produced by Compass Rose Theater . Reviewed by Jeffrey Walker.