Like much that is experimental, “The Saint Plays” by Erik Ehn can be hard to follow, sometimes frustratingly so. But when produced by a bold young company like Factory 449, it can also be visually compelling and gloriously performed by an able ensemble cast.
In six plays of varying length, Ehn smashes the lives of traditional Catholic saints into a contemporary, feverishly mystical retelling — some more recognizable than others: “Wholly Joan’s” places the Maid of Orleans (Zehra Fazal) in a modern day battlefield subject to the whimsy of her captors and the voices that have compelled her to dress as a man and wage battle.
In “Locus,” a shades-sporting John the Baptist (Sun King Davis) contends with the insolent Salome (Belen Oyola-Rebaza) whose enticing veils have been replaced with a short-skirted majorette uniform.
A serenely mournful Saint Rose of Lima (beautifully played by Lisa Hodsoll) is featured in both “Thistle” and “The Monkey Seller.” The first relays Rufina Amaya’s (Lorena Sabogal) chilling testimony about the 1981 rape and murder of hundreds of civilians in El Mozote by U.S.-backed Salvadorian forces. The second (especially penned by Ehn for this production) explores the 1978 mass suicide at Jamestown, Guyana. Dexter Hamlett is terrific as both the cult leader Jim Jones and the Bible’s Zacchaeus (the tiny tax collector who climbed the sycamore tree to see Christ).
“Tobacco” features a hardboiled homeless woman (Hodsoll again) with plenty to say. In “The Freak,” an ultimately embittered narrator (Allyson Harkey) tells the fantastic story of a miraculously winged schoolgirl (Betsy Rosen) who baptizes the foot of a medieval knight (David Lamont Wilson).
Designer Greg Stevens successfully morphs the intimate Church Street Theater into the grounds of a traveling circus with wobbly caravans and worn, outsized banners advertising the saints. He also costumes the cast in the drab gear befitting a group of down-and-out itinerants; but still, the plays aren’t moored to this vaguely Great Depression era-setting. Thanks in large part to Cory Ryan Frank’s lighting, the set easily lends itself to other times and locales including a trailer park in Albuquerque, Manhattan’s lower east side and a classroom at a California university.
Ehn’s plays are peppered with jarring epiphanic moments. Similarly, the production’s gay director John Moletress and his design team create some striking and undeniably memorable images: A covey of seen-only-to-her virgin bride attendants surround St. Joan. Joined in a huddle and lit from beneath they become the flickering hot flames surrounding the saint’s death stake. A woman unexpectedly breaks through a Hefty bag — she tells her story from behind a cracked window pain. John the Baptist’s severed heads speaks as it rests on a patio grill. A tiny mechanical toy monkey bangs cymbals alone on an empty stage.
Factory 449 is still defining its aesthetic. Like the year old company’s inaugural hit production “4.48 Psychosis,” its current season opener makes good use of video and film. Moletress’ direction continues to be inventive, beautifully bringing to life the playwright’s themes of hope, loss and redemption. The production employs theatrical styles from Greco masks, puppetry, postmodern visuals and an onstage musician (the talented Tom Carman performing two of his own quietly melodic compositions).
The challenge here is maintaining a balance between Ehn’s prose and Moletress’ staging. When all elements are in sync, “The Saint Plays” is heaven.
‘The Saint Plays’
Through Oct. 10
Factory 449: a theatre collective
Church Street Theater
1742 Church Street, N.W.
$20 to $25
More info and tickets are here.