Killer clones and spiritual inquiry in art

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A God in Need of Help at Tarragon Theatre and Space Network/BBC America’s Orphan Black. Bizarre to compare a meditative play about religion in 17th century Europe with an episodic TV drama about a murderous clone conspiracy, but compare I do, because my life this week included both.

I admit I had a better time with Orphan Black, a sci-fi thriller about a woman who discovers she’s a clone and has to figure out what to do about it. This bugs the thinker in me, because while Orphan is very good at what it does and features a jaw-dropping central performance from chameleon-from-Regina Tatiana Maslany, it has an anti-intellectual streak you don’t have to be Susan Sontag to spot. The show’s scientists are conniving and murderous. Technological progress is shown to be insidious at best, maybe catastrophic. The grad student character is socially inept and out of touch; one character dubs her “Ivory Tower.”

But the plot of the show is masterful, an intricate web of action, each revelation and reversal unloaded with precision, even if plausibility sometimes gets slaughtered. It’s a compulsively watchable entertainment. It doesn’t derive its interest, as the likewise serialized HBO and AMC marvels do, from an investigation into the recesses and surfaces of contemporary culture. Its depth isn’t thematic, emotional, spiritual. Its appeal is all story, structural architecture. It has some other virtues, like its subtle, witty satire of TV tropes (e.g. the “desperate housewife” in the stultifying suburbs), but I stayed tuned through the first season mostly because its plot machinery keeps the stakes stratospheric. The way the stakes are high is elementary: the hero or another character we care about is in physical danger, immediate or potential. Maybe a facile way to get the audience’s blood racing, but it works. It worked on me.

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Thoughtful art can use devices like a-character-in-physical-danger to stimulate interest or focus attention, but it can’t stop there. What’s at stake in the meaningful human narrative is always, at the root, spiritual. Emotional. It’s the existential stake, which isn’t merely bodily, that has to be high. It’s this kind of intensity I hoped I’d find in A God In Need of Help, which tackles meaty issues like the role of art in religious belief and observance, faith and reason’s old tango. Sean Dixon’s play is a dense, ideologically complex work, and I couldn’t possibly offer a detailed analysis of the script itself without a careful read or three. But in my experience of the production as an audience member, I found the stakes to be low.

A friend described the play’s structure as “Rashomon in Venice,” and that’s apt; the plot concerns the interrogation by a Cardinal-Archbishop of several strongmen tasked with transporting a valuable artwork from Venice to Prague, over the Alps. The men offer their divergent accounts in turn. This structure means that most of the play’s conflict is deferred, recounted, demonstrated in fragments. So be it; Chekhov and Annie Baker hold interest with deferred conflict better than any Shavian shouting match can do. But in A God In Need of Help, the vignettes that we see, flashbacks from the Alps interspersed with the interrogation in Venice, don’t feel informed by enough genuine emotional or spiritual urgency to sustain interest in the absence of much direct conflict. The performances are a notch heightened from the naturalistic — maybe they have to be, the formality of the language demands it. They verge on Brechtian and do alienate, a bit. Which is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t help to lend emotional immediacy to situations that often feel un- or anti-dramatic.

How and why are they anti-dramatic? Well, on a superficial level, opportunities for high stakes of the nail-biting TV order aren’t taken. The Cardinal-Archbishop tells each of his prisoners that he won’t kill them, he’s not the enemy. Maybe this gesture has a symbolic resonance that I missed, but the interrogator’s amiability levels out the intensity of his scenes. If we were reminded that the prisoners are in mortal danger at every moment, if the characters themselves were made to feel their peril more strongly and fight harder for pardon, it would help lend suspense and tension to the drama. If the performance style allowed real desperation to be lived onstage, it would be easier to care about what happens to the play’s people.

I so admire the thematic ambition of Sean Dixon’s writing, the fearlessness with which it engages with issues of large scope. And I admire Tarragon artistic director Richard Rose’s love of this kind of ambition and the way he champions it. But I felt there was nothing intellectually or spiritually at risk here. I don’t say there’s no intellectual substance to the play; that wouldn’t be true. It’s full of historical detail and characters who talk about ideas. But it doesn’t feel animated, in this production, by a spirit of present-tense inquiry. Its discussion of art and religion feels cosmetic.

For one thing, the remote period and setting of 17th-century Europe renders the play’s arguments, insofar as it makes arguments, rather sterile: on my single viewing of it, no forceful metaphor struck me, in text or production, that would bridge the world of the Venetian Republic and Bathurst and Dupont, Toronto, 2014. In the press release for the show, the playwright says he wrote the play to “express empathy for those held in the grip of a passion or belief that gives their life meaning against all reason.” Fair enough. But radicalism and fundamentalism articulate themselves in the 21st century with a completely different syntax than their 17th century counterparts. They have a different style. And to do justice to them in art demands an answering style. It’s a powerful metaphorical engine that can make a play about the 17th century be interestingly about anything but the 17th century, and I’m not convinced that A God In Need of Help contains one.

I wonder what questions this play poses to a contemporary audience. Maybe it’s worthwhile to express empathy for people consumed by irrational passion, or to extoll the transformative power of art and/or religion, but these are ideas that exhaust themselves quickly. An educated audience will soon get ahead of them; they’re not a question, and they’re not an evening. How is the Tarragon Theatre’s mostly middle and upper-middle class, mostly middle-aged or older, mostly literate and liberal audience implicated by this play’s investigation of religion, art? Distanced by the production’s historical context and arch style, in what way is that audience expected to see themselves or their concerns reflected?

Surely the play’s joking treatment of papal pederasty and suspicion of sectarians can’t be meant as a serious discussion of Catholicism’s problems. Its consideration of miracles and Protestant iconoclasm doesn’t break new ground. This doesn’t come across as a play with major theological intensity or learning: not a cry of the soul or a hungry silence, not an intellectual work that can approach the detail and force of religious minds like Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Augustine, Aquinas. Maybe it needn’t; it’s a play. Yet – by fault of text or production – the characters aren’t developed into complex enough individuals, with autonomous and surprising enough emotional lives, to create real investment in them. And the plot defers direct conflict so often that characters and ideas are all we’re left with. Perplexing. I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to take away from the experience, what the show’s creators hoped I’d ask myself or think about or feel.

On a weird but amazing note, the performance I saw featured director Richard Rose as a script-in-hand replacement for ailing Tony Nappo. At first I thought this substitution would just be bizarre, but I loved it. I loved Rose’s performance. It was all process, struggle, discovery. It was, in miniature, what I hoped this show, and really all shows, would be. It was full of search and grappling and vulnerability. It was strangely childlike. It had a sense of lightness and weirdness and play. It was beautiful.

This article first appeared on Facebook on April 25, 2014.
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