Telling people that the earth took shape from chaos, like curds forming into cheese, probably won't net you any trouble these days. Even in communities where creationism still holds sway, these ideas aren't at all rare, and certainly won't get you burned at the stake. But in 16th-century Italy, with the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition in full flower, toeing the Catholic Church's line was imperative. Playwright and director Lillian Groag managed to find something funny in the story of Domenico Scandella, a miller in the Friuli region who insisted on thinking for himself and thus was branded a heretic. Her Menocchio at the Berkeley Rep is the tartly imagined, often-hilarious result.
Poor Menocchio, as Scandella also was known. He's surrounded by people who talk about nothing but who's screwing the livestock, their neighbor's turnip-induced constipation, and the entertainment value of your average heretic-burning. ("There was a dancing dog, colored streamers, and candied apples. Other than the screams, it was great fun.") Nobody is remotely interested in what interests him. Tantalized by books cadged from a Turk in the marketplace, Menocchio wants to visit foreign lands, handle an astrolabe, and speak to God directly without the intervention of popes or priests. It's no wonder that when he finally meets someone he can talk to, he does so at great length. Unfortunately, that person is the Inquisitor of Aquileia and Concordia.
Charles Dean, who was so creepy in The Entertainer, is a lot warmer here as Menocchio, and captures both his character's enthusiasm and his poorly concealed curiosity. The night I went I could feel the audience rooting for him, even as we uttered a collective "uh-oh" at his tendency to get himself in trouble. Dean's physical transition after the first sentencing is particularly noteworthy, from confident and open to trembling and contained. His triumphant last line is a blessed relief.
Meanwhile Jeri Lynn Cohen, who made a brilliant eleventh-hour save in the Rep's recent House of Blue Leaves when she took over as Bunny, is back as another pushy wisecracker. Right from the beginning she bemoans her husband's innovative ways when she tries to cook a "toe-mah-toe" he has grown from a traveler's seeds. "I'll baste it with taffy and bake it in a sheep's bladder next time," she proclaims. "It's just not Italian!" Besides the tomato, she doesn't trust Menocchio's infatuation with books, his theories about God, or his insistence on abstract thinking.
As a non-Catholic, I had difficulty following what was going on during the scenes in which Menocchio is grilled by the Inquisitor, as in Shaw's St. Joan (to which this play bears a more than passing resemblance). But my companion, thoroughly schooled by nuns, found the same scenes utterly fascinating, and added that Ken Ruta as the Inquisitor had the priest thing down cold. Ruta's Inquisitor has extraordinary gravity and presence. He is clearly torn between his duty to the Church and his awareness of modern thought -- he not only knows something about chaos theory, but also about the best way to consume heathen things such as tomatoes and coffee. Ruta manages to be warm, firm, and tremendously sad, all at once.
According to the program, Dan Hiatt plays Menocchio's friend Bastian and also is in the Ensemble. It would be more accurate to say that he is the Ensemble. In the funniest sequence in the show, the reliably hysterical Hiatt plays all of the witnesses called to testify that Menocchio has been spreading seditious ideas. "I'm supposed to believe we're just turds on cheese in the middle of a fart?" he asks incredulously, summing up in one sentence the sort of pigheadedness faced by a man so far ahead of his time that his ideas might still have the power to shock.
Like Menocchio, Transparent Theater's world premiere play Eternity Is in Love with the Productions of Time addresses the ramifications of speaking up. The place is an alternate- universe Soviet Union, and the time is now, but speaking your truth gets you in just as much trouble as in 1585 Italy. This time it's not a miller but a poet who draws the attention of the powers that be, and not a priest but a doctor who turns him in. But the end result is the same -- silence and death. In Menocchio, Groag is trying to find the humor in the story she sets out to tell, whereas in Eternity, playwrights Tom Clyde and Coley Lally seem to be trying to create an intense, brooding climate. As a result, the plays are visually and viscerally very different, although they explore the same issues.
Eternity's title should sound familiar to anyone fond of the poet and artist William Blake; it's one of his Proverbs from Hell, taken from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There's a lot of Blake in this play, as well as Bob Dylan, Russian poets Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Nikolai Gumilev. There's a reason for that. While the plot and some of the dialogue are newly created by Clyde and Lally, much of the dialogue is taken directly from poets the two admire. There's been a lot of buzz in the community about this show over the past few months, as theater workers have speculated on whether the hybrid would prove robust -- or for that matter, lucrative. Assembling a play from existing poetry is incredibly risky for any group; for a small company barely into its second season, such a move is downright rash. But Clyde and Lally started their theater because they wanted to make something they weren't seeing anywhere else, and their vision is proving a distinct and courageous one that should appeal to audiences in love with words, language, and atmosphere.
Publicity photos aside, this isn't a group of actors sitting around limply reading poetry. Neither is it a poetry slam, with writers belting out their work. There is a plot, about a poet in love with a doctor's wife. The doctor, enraged, denounces the poet to the authorities, and then must face his own complicity in the poet's silencing when the poet's wife and son come forward. Everything in the characters' lives is a struggle -- love, work, following the creative impulse -- and the tension shines forth like the brilliant red spotlights of a train that makes occasional appearances. While the characters speak more poetically than you or I do, the dialogue generally flows with and supports the story, although it is a little disquieting that administering drugs to political prisoners apparently makes them spout Dylan poems.
Eternity is much more dynamic than I anticipated, both in its design and its direction; it's a lot tighter than last season's Swanwhite and much more charged than Clyde's Golden State. Which is not to say that it doesn't challenge viewers, because it does. The intriguing set design, all reds and blues and paper-filled pits, is more evocative than it is realistic, and as much is left unsaid as not. The acting ranges from fantastic to uneven. At the intermission I realized that the people next to me were understanding a lot more of the plot than I was, and an audience member with a firmer grounding in poetry than my own would probably have a richer experience. But as collaboration between writers living and dead, Eternity is stronger than the sum of its parts.
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