It's 1606 and Europe is experiencing religious tensions... the Catholics are fighting the Lutheran and Calvinist Protestants. In Venice, four of the strongest men, chosen specifically because they won a strong man competition, have been assigned what some might classify as a "Fools Errand", the extraordinarily perilous task of transporting an extremely large and heavy holy painting across the Alps from Venice to Prague. A Captain (Dmitry Chepovetsky) is assigned to lead and protect them. On their way, they are attacked and captured by a Protestant mob, Calvinists, who are determined to destroy any work of art that might be considered a graven image —the carrying team's escape is considered a miracle by many.
These four strong men and their Captain were assigned to lug this painting by the Holy Roman Emperor himself, Rudolf II. And this very real giant oil painting entitled "The Feast of the Rose Garlands," was created by Albrecht Durer and features the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus surrounded by ridiculously incongruous 17th Century political and religious celebrities.
As the play opens, we are in the Republic of Venice where the citizens were mostly Catholic. The Republic itself was remarkably cosmopolitan and temperate in its religious views and often ran into conflicts with the Pope. In fact, the Republic was excommunicated twice. We see the four men's heads covered by black hoods and their hands are shackled. They are being questioned by a secular Venetian Magistrate (John Cleland) and a Catholic Cardinal (Greg Ellwand) in a dark dungeon.
The four men in the black hoods are eventually identified as Marco (Alden Adair), a rather slow-witted laborer; Cocco (Daniel Kash), a seasoned, professional soldier and killer; Dolfin (Tony Nappo), a witty travelling actor; and Rafal ( Jonathan Seinen) the youngest, weirdest, most troubled, troublesome, possibly delusional and most mysterious of the group. He claims he's a magician as well as a supernatural being. He is the enigma around whom most of the action and plot are focused.
The two major mysteries that are at the core of this play and that are being investigated primarily by the Cardinal, are number one, the fact that just as the Protestant inhabitants of a small Alpine village were about to destroy the painting and its team of carriers, a miracle happened: Everyone present, more than fifty people, saw The Virgin Mary walk out of the painting. Or, did she?
And mystery number two, who exactly is this Rafal character who claims he is a spiritual and very special being and who also appears to have played some part in the miraculous event?
The basic structure of the play is reasonably straightforward, with the Cardinal questioning each of the carrying team individually, one after the other. "How can you stand listening to the same tale over and over," Cocco asks the Cardinal. "I'm accustomed to it," he replies. "It's the structure of the gospels."
It's fascinating to hear how each of the team reports the same event differently. However, following the story's sequence of events can be challenging at times as we go from past to present and back again multiple times.
Nevertheless, director Richard Rose has managed to keep things as simple, brisk and clear as possible.
The set, by Camellia Koo, is simple and bare, yet effective. As you enter the theatre, you'll immediately notice an unusual thrust-like stage that juts out into the first fifteeen rows of the theatre, actually surrounding part of the audience. There are also ramps and stairs at various locations and levels of the stage that are very cleverly used to create a sense of depth and dungeon. Also effective, on stage throughout the entire production, is an exact replica of the featured painting, which has an enormous detachable frame. It is this frame which then symbolically represents the painting that is being carried throughout the production, another clever design feature.
Pre show Gregorian Chant music by John Gzowski helps to set the appropriate mood.
The cast vary in their ability to handle the dense material. Generally, the work was impressive. But the least effective actor was, unfortunately, in the most important and pivotal role, Rafal. Jonathan Seinen, while competent, simply did not have the ability to ultimately convince the audience of his special powers and thus, could not pull off the final magical moments of the story.
Nevertheless, this production offers theatre goers who prefer thought-provoking plays to more frivolous material, a stimulating two hours of interesting drama, mystery and intellectual stimulation.
Finally, the one issue that I frequently raise regarding theatre in Toronto, and it's not uncommon to many theatre companies throughout North America, the audience for this performance was predominantly over sixty. Where is that younger audience? How will legitimate theatre survive in North America?
Written by: Sean Dixon
Directed by: Richard Rose
Featuring: Alden Adair, Dmitry Chepovetsky, John Cleland, Greg Ellwand, Daniel Kash, Tony Nappo & Jonathan Seinen with Daniel Giverin and Ben Irvine
Apprentice stage manager: Marc Benson
Script coordinator: Wesley J. Colford
Sound design: John Gzowski
Set & costume design: Camellia Koo
Stage manager: Kristen Kitcher
Assistant director: Peter Pasyk
Fight director: John Stead