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Speaking Ex Cathedra

Murder in the Cathedral directed by Ted Wiprud At Currier House, April 24, 25, 26

STAGING THIS hyper-intellectual verse play is a risky venture as best in these postlapsarian times. Awash in his hard-won Catholic faith, T.S. Eliot spun Murder in the Cathedral in 1935 out of the stuff of the ritual he was preoccupied with and the metaphysical poetry he esteemed. Since then, its readers have appreciated its poetic merit, but its audiences have sat uncomfortably as paradox and conceit flew by, just out of their grasp.

Eliot presents the oft-dramatized story of Becket as a morality play, a lesson in the nature of martyrdom, and eschews all the possible theatrics in the tale. He manipulates a sparse collection of performers--Becket, three priests, four tempters, four knights, and a chorus of women--through a ritual that both plumbs the deep seas of Christian theology and plunders pagan mythology for parallels and a natural background. The mutable verse form, with irregular rhymes and cyclical repetition, can hypnotically enthrall you even if you don't quite catch Eliot's meaning.

The problem, for directors, performers and audiences alike, is that virtually nothing happens onstage. The soul-wrenching self-examination Becket undergoes--to tell whether he's sacrificing himself to God's will or just seeking glory in martrydom--makes for good poetry but not much drama. Eliot's static script and musical writing summon a comparison, oddly, with opera--voices and not bodies must bring Murder in the Cathedral to life.

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It is vocally that the Currier House production fails. Director Ted Wiprud takes Eliot literally throughout, and doesn't tamper with casting or staging: he turns the Currier Fishbowl into a miniature basilica, lining the audience reverentially on either side, as though the plastic seats were pews. The director's straightforward approach falters only because many in the cast simply lack the vocal agility to carry Eliot's play safely from poetry to speech.

The worst offenders are the eight women in the chorus. they plod like cows and wail like banshees. Eliot wrote lengthy parts for the chorus, to make it the passive, fearful substratum of the play, somewhere between mankind and nature. Its members understand even less than the audience what's happening to Becket, but they too participate in a small way in the miracle of Becket's martyrdom and learn something as the play progresses. You wouldn't know it from the actresses at Currier, who maintain the same unbearable level of high-pitched, uncomprehending moaning from start to finish--until the Te Deum they sing at the end, for which their voices suddenly turn saccharine.

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THE OTHER real weakness is Andrew Garrett's aquiline Becket, whose performance has an "almost good enough" quality that can't sustain a play that trucks in religious certitudes. Garrett's enunciation is excellent, his modulation poor; annoyingly, his voice turns nasal at the most inopportune moments--a saint with a stuffed nose. Like the chorus, he doesn't seem to change as the play advances. The temptations of the first act, the sermon in the interlude, and the moment of final submission and canonization in the second act all find him earnest but sulky. There's no fear in his trials, no tenderness in his sermon, no sanctity to his sacrifice.

Others in the cast, like Lawrence Aronovitch's Third Priest or Kevin Porter's Second Tempter, build more convincing vocal profiles, giving Eliot's conundrums a sonorous base. The four knights (John Piccione, Rick Reynolds, Ted Glowacky, and David Lanznar) also perform their dual task well, first doing away with Becket rudely and quickly, then tempting the audience to grant them forgiveness.

Eliot's sudden shift to contemporary prose here--the bland droning of board-room babble--is, if not the most subtle, certainly the most dramatically effective touch in the play: the knights appeal directly to the listeners, in impoverished but familiar language, to understand their motives. Eliot forces his audience either to accept their justifications or, rejecting them, participate in the deeper mystery around which the play hovers--the working of God's will through men:

They know and do not know, that action is suffering And suffering is action. Neither does the actor suffer Nor the patient act. But both are fixed In an eternal action, an eternal patience To which all must consent that it may be willed And which all must suffer that they may will it, That the pattern may subsist, for the pattern is the action And the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still Be forever still.

The Currier House company deserves a certain amount of credit simply for launching a play that contains such involuted ideas into the musical-crowded waters of House drama. But Murder in the Cathedral, unlike Becket's sacrifice, demands more than the right intentions; only better voices than these can make it hold the stage.

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