If your theatre tastes favor new and challenging works, Scena Theatre’s world premiere of Guilt is worthy of your consideration with its interesting mélange of light comedy, dark tragedy, and challenging satire. Australian playwright John Shard takes the audience on a powerful journey that uses the story of a 17th century philandering French priest as a metaphor for the consequences of falsehood run amok.
Guilt is based on the true historical story of Urbain Grandier, an early 17th century priest in Loudun, France who was accused of witchcraft for allegedly captivating women, including an entire convent of nuns, with his devilish charm (pun intended). The play is accurately subtitled “an opera without music” in that it makes regular use of poetic verse to invoke powerful emotions and tell a story with big themes.
Early on, the play is reminiscent of a restoration-era comedy. The sly, seductive priest Grandier (Oscar Ceville) is entrusted with the education with the beautiful but naïve teenage Brigette (Danielle Davy) by the girl’s father, the self-important and foolish magistrate DeBrou (Ron Litman). His magnetic charm and his self-serving religious rationalizations gradually allow him to bed the affection-seeking maiden.
The situation spirals downward when DeBrou finds out the truth and removes his daughter to the care of a convent headed by a Sister Jeanne (Nanna Ingvarsson). The Sister soon becomes jealous of Brigette because she has been bewitched by Grandier from afar, and becomes upset when he refuses her invitation to take on the role of Father confessor to the convent.
An angry and vengeful DeBrou brings the matter to the attention of a zealous religious official. Surin (an appropriately intense John Geoffrion), having heard of the reputation of Grandier and his writings against celibacy, launched a biased investigation. He is determined to find evidence that Grandier is in league with the Devil, in part through conducting exorcisms of the two women. He then brings formal witchcraft charges against Grandier that lead to a dark fate for the priest.
The early scenes of Guilt are light-hearted fun. Danielle Davy, swathed in pink and white tulle, is a human Barbie doll complete with a high-pitched voice, tiny steps, and comic expressions. Ceville, in turn, is wonderfully sleazy, preaching about the value of virginity while privately pursuing carnal charms. The fun continues when Brigette and Jeanne engage in a competition to boast of their closeness to their beloved Grandier.
As the story turns darker (consistent with the black box staging and mostly monochromatic scenic elements), it becomes a thoughtful allegory on the ability of repeated false accusations which take on lives of their own. Playwright John Shand has stated that the work was inspired by the misinformation underlying the War on Terror and the more recent examples of intolerance in which facts can be labelled “fake news.”
closes February 4, 2018
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Yet there are aspects of the play that make its viewing less pleasant and more burdensome. Instead of telling a simpler dramatic story (as Arthur Miller did with The Crucible) the play makes a huge shift in tone that many may find troubling. Once Guilt focuses on the imprisonment and interrogation of Grandier, the play becomes powerful, sometimes brutally so. The story doesn’t offer a naturally sympathetic character with rooting interest for viewers. The willingness of the female accusers to maintain their pretense after the potential consequences of the action become clear is hard to understand. Finally, the ending seems an artificial attempt to turn regret into action.
The underlying story of Urbain Grandier has been explored by many authors in various forms, including a well-regard nonfiction novel by Aldous Huxley (The Devils of Loudun), multiple plays and films, and an opera. Playwright Shand and Scene Theatre engage in an ambitious and provocative attempt to interpret the historical story in light of contemporary issues. Guilt may be a mixed theatrical success, but all involved deserve credit for the scope of the play’s ambitions and the excellent quality of the Scena Theatre production.
Guilt by John Shand. Director / Artistic Director: Robert McNamara. Featuring Oscar Ceville, Danielle Davy, John Geoffrion, Nanna Ingvarsson, and Ron Litman. Sound Designer: Denise Rose. Set Designer: Eva Petri?. Costume Designer: Eva Petri?. Lighting Designer: Johnathan Alexander. Stage Manager: Hannah Fogler. Assistant Directors. Natalia Gleason and Anne Nottage. Fight Choreographer: Paul Gallagher. Produced by Scena Theatre. Reviewed by Steven McKnight.
[Note: The fact that John Geoffrion writes for DCTS did not effect this review.]