Stiff and brilliant, studded with the greatest of poetry and names that are to history what stars are to the heavens, Murder in the Cathedral is a masterpiece as curious as it is great. T.S. Eliot's retelling of the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket, it's full of chanting, sermons and ancient ritual steeped in mystery. Kind of like Mass.
That's what excites me most about Art Suskin's new production. Suskin and his Theatre Gym are staging this most ecclesiastical of plays where it belongs: not on a stage but before the altar of St. Mary's, the gorgeous Episcopal church that has stood at 13th Street and Holmes since before there was a 13th Street and Holmes. Suskin says he has dreamed of doing this for 40 years, and I'm happy to report that he has achieved it reasonably well.
The lofty gloom of St. Mary's is consistent with the majesty of Eliot's conception, while the darkness that gathers in the corners and the floorboards that shake under soldiers' feet summon a world lost to us — a Middle Ages of candles and creaking wood. It primes us for Becket's spiritual struggle, one alien to an ecumenical age: Here is a time when faith could not bend to accommodate the secular world.
The production demands that we contemplate these matters for well over two hours. It wasn't church, but it might as well have been for a couple of young boys in the crowd. There they were, crammed into slacks, sulking through some incomprehensible pageant that their parents probably insisted was good for them.
A nine-member women's chorus opens the show. This is a chorus in every sense of the world. After singing, they start in with unison narration, describing the hapless poverty of "the small folk," moaning that something bad will soon happen, and generally making what the Good Book calls a gnashing of teeth. That takes awhile. (Later, they dare anachronistic breakthroughs such as Christmas carols, stringed instruments and one effective 20th-century surprise sung by the gifted Teresa Sheffield.) Eventually, some priests parade through with all due dignity, despite one of them being shaky on the whole declaiming-in-public thing.
By this point, the kids in slacks were dropping off like old folks after an August lunch.
Finally, Becket enters, and we have a play. Commanding but touched with grace, Denny Dey is superb as the murderee, that archbishop whose incorruptibility leads knights loyal to Henry II to gut him as he prays. As four tempters arrive to lure Becket — and the church — into worldly affairs, human weakness glints in his eyes. Dey makes it clear that Becket could enjoy youthful frivolity. But then Dey's Becket steels himself with persuasive power, especially when confronting a sin so dark that the church is still loath to discuss it: the vanity of martyrdom.
Each of the tempters balances allure and oiliness, building into uneasy comedy. Scott Shaw demonstrates charm and fine timing; Cliff Lawson is a study in medieval debauchery, all chest hair and gold chains, massaging a wine goblet as if he were arousing it.
What follows is more teeth gnashing from the chorus, which is sometimes under-rehearsed but quite good at the long passages of creepy portents. Then some moping by the priests, and then a fine sermon from Becket — at long last, four knights seize the church and slay Becket in a somber tableau before the altar. As staged by Suskin, these rare moments of theatrical action are as ritualized as the rest of the show. Using music and the occasional fade to black, Suskin sure-handedly positions his cast into simple, striking arrangements appropriate to the 12th century. His scenes suggest woodcuts and stained glass.
The death and subsequent mourning are beautifully lighted, something those two boys might have carried with them if they had been awake for it. Walking out, I wondered what they had made of it all. Was it theater? Was it church?
Then I remembered a Good Friday sermon my parents dragged me to decades back, an evening service where red lighting and a new sternness transformed the gentle Lutheran pastor I was used to. At the end, instead of shaking hands and blessing us, he slammed shut his Bible and cut the lights, and we filed out in silence.
I didn't get it, but I thrilled to the theater of it all. Just two years later, the elders chased this kind and understanding man away in favor of an idiot hard-ass who told me that rock and roll would lead me to hell.
Even in junior high school, I figured that our original pastor had ignored the culture wars out of principle and then paid the price.
Maybe the complexities of Becket aren't too much for a kid after all.