Through Feb. 4
ATLAS Performing Arts Center
1333 H St. N.E.
Locked away and stripped of his cassock, a disgraced priest languishes in a fetid prison cell at the mercy of sadistic jailers. And though he believes his transgressions don’t warrant such punishment, he knows things will end badly. And indeed, they do. Horrifically so.
But this isn’t how Scena Theatre’s world premiere production of Australian playwright John Shand’s “Guilt” begins. It kicks off as broad comedy. Vainglorious Father Grandier (out actor Oscar Ceville) regales the audience with his love for women and desire for a new young lover. Right on cue, grandiose Magistrate DuBrou (Ron Litman) arranges to have his virginal daughter Brigitte (Danielle Davy), a dim, wide-eyed girl dressed in a pink pouf gown, go to Grandier for private music lessons. Soon, cleric and student fall into bed.
After Brigitte turns up pregnant, DuBrou secrets her away to an Ursuline convent under the watchful eye its prioress, Soeur Jeanne, a love-starved, humpbacked nun played with relish by Nanna Ingvarsson. Jeanne, who is also in love with Grandier, develops a love/hate relationship with her young charge. When Grandier spurns Jeanne’s invitation to become the convent’s confessor, trouble ensues.
With the help of evil cleric Suran (John Geoffrion), DuBrou, Jeanne, and an initially reluctant Brigitte conspire to bring Grandier down. The priest is imprisoned, tried and put to death in the worst way.
Staged by Scena’s venerable artistic director Robert McNamara, the production is energetic and the five-person cast is fully committed to say the least. It’s paced well and Shand’s lyric yet contemporary verse is punctuated by witty gestures and clever elements of staging. Still, scenes are uneven. While some are meticulously staged and well-acted others are not, including the loud, tiresome exorcism and torture sequences.
Though jarring, “Guilt’s” shift from silly to serious, allows the actors to display range, comedic to dramatic. Characters change from wholly detestable to sympathetic, relationships move from superficial to real, and inner lives are explored in meaningful ways.
Eva Petrič’s emotively lit set is comprised of four folding chairs backed by a large sort of Rubik’s cube covered in black and white silhouettes, some sensuous; and the smart costumes, Petrič again, are whimsical yet give a nod to historical accuracy.
“Guilt” is based on the real-life 1764 trial of Urbain Grandier, the French Catholic priest who was accused of bewitching a convent of nuns in Loudun, France, and was consequently burned at the stake. Like Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” based on the Salem witch trials, Shand’s work explores the tie between sexual and religious rapture, and the historical ways in which witch hunts are used to settle scores and scapegoat groups and individuals. It’s a timely piece.
The lead up to Scena’s production is unique. Nine years ago, Shand left a copy of his script at the stage door of a Sydney theater where famous British actor/playwright Steven Berkoff was performing. Berkoff, who also writes in verse, was impressed and met with Shand. Berkoff suggested Shand approach Scena. Fast forward to 2014. Scena staged a reading of “Guilt” for a series at Woolly Mammoth Theatre called “Rhythm & Rebellion,” and last fall, they again staged a reading for the Kennedy Center’s annual Page-to-Stage Festival. With “Guilt” Scena continues its 30-year mission to bring international theater to Washington.