The recent occupation of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity briefly renewed an old debate over the value of historical monuments vs. that of political fugitives‘ lives: Were the armed Palestinians fleeing Israeli soldiers bad art citizens for allowing the church to be damaged during their five-week refuge there, or were critics who raised the question mere Philistines, so to speak, for even bringing it up? From time to time, moments of volcanic drama have erupted against backdrops like Angkor Wat or Bamian, Afghanistan — dramas involving blood, ideology and art. And in rare cases, they have inspired such playwrights as David Edgar to write thought-provoking works like Pentecost, now being presented at Evidence Room.
Set in an unnamed Eastern European country, Pentecost revolves around a medieval fresco depicting Christ’s deposition from the cross. Not only has the painting been discovered after an interminable exile behind an ancient church‘s brick wall, but the circumstances of its origin and resemblance to Giotto’s Lamentation Over Jesus strongly suggest it may have actually been the inspiration for Giotto‘s watershed painting and not merely its copy. The difference is critical, because Giotto’s masterpiece, painted on the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy, announced the end of the flattened, flounder-faced world of Byzantine art. Could Pentecost‘s Slavic backwater have been the Renaissance’s true wellspring?
For the last 40 years, the bricks hiding the story‘s fresco have been covered by a gaudy Communist mural — a twist on Marx’s crack about Christianity‘s “vandalism of triumph,” which covered pagan art treasures with liturgical texts. The church itself is a palimpsest of conquering ideologies, having evolved from Orthodox church to mosque to Napoleonic stable to Catholic church to Nazi torture chamber to Communist museum. Savoring her discovery of the fresco is Gabriella Pecs (Colleen Wainwright), her country’s national-museum curator, who, with a British art historian named Oliver Davenport (Don Oscar Smith), eagerly goes about the job of removing the painting for transport to the national museum. They don‘t get very far, however, before competing interests in the new, dubious democracy come forward to claim the painting, aided by, of all people, an American art critic (Leo Marks).
Act 1 crackles with witty badinage and sight gags (everyone from government minister to priest enters the church carrying his car stereo), but more important, the story is filled with debates about cultural authorship, possession and relativism, as well as linguistic hegemony (most characters speak some form of English). Director Bart DeLorenzo has mounted an ambitious staging that is airtight in its presentation, betraying none of the design sprawl or exaggerated readings that this work might tempt from a less perceptive talent.
Jason Adams has configured the airy Evidence Room into an ambiguous sanctuary, an effect aided by Lap-Chi Chu’s lighting plot and John Zalewski‘s crisp sound design. (The only problem is the Room’s echoey acoustics.) Wainwright and Smith are completely believable and sympathetic in their roles — she as a woman who sees the fresco as part of a national redemption, he as a somewhat condescending foreigner who nevertheless is way over his head in this game of global art politicking. The pair are ably complemented by Marks‘ sleek performance as the breezy American with a chip on his shoulder.
The story’s first half ends with the takeover of the church by a multinational band of stateless refugees seeking asylum from whatever country will take them. These are the human detritus from the fall of communism, Middle Eastern diasporas and various nationalist microwars. The art experts quickly find themselves held hostage by these desperate people, whose tragic pasts we soon hear about in Act 2. If it‘s a different Pentecost that viewers return to after intermission, it’s also a sign that the evening is really two separate plays sharing the same set and some of the same characters. Suddenly we‘re being lectured by the refugees about the plight of Palestinians, Kurds and Gypsies, and by Edgar about the selfish logic behind international boundaries. These worthy topics might have resonated more clearly had they begun this or some other play, but here, presented as a second act, and because of Act 1’s brevity and racetrack pacing, they seem like an overlong exercise in hand wringing. During which we‘re left to wonder if the refugees will get accepted by other countries or if they’ll follow through on a threat to destroy the painting.
When the climax arrives, it seems excessive and even unnecessary. Not only that, but the aftermath, in which a leather-coated government minister delivers a cynical benediction, reminds us how Edgar‘s blustery Eastern Europeans are mere buffoons, and his refugees strident stereotypes. There are too many Inspector Clouseau–type malapropisms and mispronounced words for us to escape the icky feeling that Edgar, the self-proclaimed internationalist, has succumbed to the British disease of portraying foreigners as childlike fools. (“Holy smoke!” and “Blow me down!” they’re fond of exclaiming, in accents contrived to show their speakers‘ silliness.)
For all these gaffes, though, Pentecost remains the kind of play that needs to find its way onto stages more often, a mirror held up to a world that no longer believes in utopias but still thinks something better is possible than a planet designed by Wal-Mart. What Edgar might have considered in his play is not so much that xenophobia is the result of vestigial bigotries and nationalisms, but the reality that most people intuitively feel (contrary to what Robert Frost wrote): Something there is that does love a wall. It’s not a pretty fact, but it‘s one truth Edgar shouldn’t run away from.