Theater Review: The Saint Plays

February 28, 2006 12:00 AM
Westmont College adds yet another bizarre chapter to Santa Barbara’s theater scene with its current production of Erik Ehn’s “The Saint Plays.”
The chance to perform four of these short works is a coup of sorts for the theater department — even more so considering one of the plays derives directly from workshopping with the students themselves. Needless to say, this section is a world premiere.
According to the playwright, he has written almost 100 short plays based on the Catholic saints, from 40-minute pieces to short, wordless tableaux, with more to come.
Some are hagiographies, while others are “exploded biographies” — a phrase he never really defines, but, after watching Friday night’s performance, must allude to the hundreds of small pieces of narrative that will never get put back together again.

Though Mr. Ehn’s writings come with fabulous word of mouth, and he is definitely reaching for the gold ring, a lot of this night’s work remained under a cloud of confusion. These are difficult plays made more so by awful acoustics in the empty Porter Theatre.
Without a set and with the stage pared back to the three breeze-block walls, words dissipated in the air like smoke (ironically, the walls were covered with words and phrases, most illegible.)
Poetry is present in these works, but a lot of gaps in the dialogue needed to be filled in.
It’s not that you need a degree in religious studies to know all the saints presented here. After a brief song, we are introduced to “Wholly Joan’s,” the first play, based on Joan of Arc (played by Amber Angelo). Mr. Ehn focuses on the voices inside her head (played by the ensemble, whispering, murmuring, running about) and the two guards who discuss her execution.
Somewhere along the way, Saint Joan, who was fond of dressing as a man and who wears black blazer and slacks onstage here, morphs into Hamlet, who is a man, but is played by a woman. Then begins the most involving section of the “The Saint Plays,” devoted to Saint Vincent de Paul.
Saint Vincent, according to the program, was a French contemporary of Shakespeare. A peasant’s son who studied theology, he was captured by pirates, but escaped after leading the master to God.
Mr. Ehn proceeds to mash up Saint Vincent’s biography and “Hamlet,” creating a variation on a theme by Shakespeare that should delight fans of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and Heiner Mueller’s “The Hamletmachine.”
He imagines an alternative reality in which Hamlet and Vincent are actually twins separated at birth. Ophelia, pregnant with Hamlet’s child, fakes her death, a ruse set up by the Queen to protect the unborn child. Instead, to a nunnery Ophelia goes, to begin a lineage that ends in modern times, way out west.
The 14th Ophelia (Heather Bancroft) finds this secret history in a box delivered by UPS to her ranch, and relates the tale over a fireside coffee with her fellow ranchhands.
Hamlet and Vincent meet mid-ocean, in that pirate-borne epiphany that exists in the linear no-man’s-land of acts four and five in Shakespeare’s play. Vincent, played by James Caldwell, swaps roles with Hamlet, who can now live with Ophelia. Vincent then becomes the changed Prince who returns with a new (saintly?) outlook on life, and is promptly killed for it. But what would a saint’s life be without an untimely death?
The second half of “The Saint Plays” returns to the 20th century with the tale of Saint Maximilian Mary Kolbe (James Caldwell again), a Polish priest who, after successful missionary work in Japan and India, wound up back in Poland and from there, Auschwitz, for organizing opposition to the Nazis. He offered to die in place of another prisoner, Gajowniczek (Carlo Moss).
As complex as the Saint Vincent piece, the Saint Maximilian section suffers from the worst sound, and while the general outline of the work can be discerned after reading the program, other characters can only be understood after running to the Internet upon returning home.
One example: Sumner LeVeque plays Father Zygmunt Rusczak, who was the camp survivor to relate Saint Maximilian’s fate. Erin Brehm’s appearance as Maximilian’s vision of the Virgin Mary only makes sense after reading the priest’s biography (fortunately, in this case, not exploded).
The Saint George section that finishes off the evening is completely abstract in idea and staging; those expecting a dragon have come to the wrong place. It also feels the most inconsequential, and a weak finale to the evening .
Unlike most drama workshop experiences, Mr. Ehn’s work with the students of Westmont’s Theatre Arts Department actually produces the best performance of the night, and that just may be the best reason to recommend “The Saint Plays.”
Nobody says Westmont makes for easy theater, but unless audiences brush up on Shakespeare and crack open their leatherbound “Lives of the Saints,” it’s definitely difficult going.

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