Cold War movers and shakers Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan had more in common than their leading roles in the last act of the Cold War; both men, earlier in life, were actors. A conversation between the two makes for a good imaginary one-act play (confidential to S. Martin: I've got a copyright on this one): JP2 could hold forth on the power of theater in a society that endured decades of stultifying occupation. Reagan could, in turn, reminisce fondly about the way Bonzo would hurl his own feces around the set the minute the cameras stopped rolling.
Karol Wojtyla toiled as an actor, director, and playwright for many years before the white Vatican chimney smoke signaled his ascent to the papacy. Judging from the evidence of Commedia Beauregard's new production, The Jeweler's Shop was written firmly before Wojtyla's rise to infallibility. It's a dense, wordy, and naively idealistic meditation on, oddly enough, romantic love and marriage.
The play comprises three short acts, each depicting a different couple. In the first, Teresa (Suzin Hoagland) and Andrew (Christopher Kehoe) see each other's images reflected in the titular shop's front window. They're smitten, but have to hash out their problems before they can grab marital bliss (he's not much for commitment, she's not much fun).
To be clear, nothing resembling conventional dramatic action actually occurs. Turns out Wojtyla was a proponent of Rhapsodic Theatre, a style in which the dialogue takes the form of blank-verse monologues. This show softens matters a bit by allowing the characters to interact, when the script makes it possible. But the language is tough going and seems craftily designed to thwart any possibility of genuine emotion. At one point Andrew offers, "There must have been something in Teresa that suited my personality." And that's when he's trying to land the babe.
There are long stretches in which Wojtyla sounds more like a philosopher than an artist, and not a particularly acute one at that. (Many of the insights have the texture of a late-night bull session at the seminary dorm after a couple of stiff chocolate milks.) But this spare work manages to pick up a degree of poignancy along the way. The middle vignette features Anna (Kathryn Kupiecki) and Stephen (Brian Hesser), a profoundly miserable married couple whose mojo long ago slipped away. Anna begins looking for escape in other men's faces, but remains trapped in the prison of her life. The kindly Adam (Clarence Wethern) tries to help; he's a sales clerk who moves through the action all evening as a free-floating mensch—the jewelry store sells wedding rings, you see. But one feels tempted to suggest a no-fault divorce—or perhaps, in this case, a low-cost annulment.
Director Christopher O. Kidder shepherds his cast through a reasonably soulful take on this stuff. But a trio of songs performed on acoustic guitar by Abby DeSanto comes across as under-rehearsed (the company should consider digging into its small budget to buy an electronic tuner). The numbers themselves, from a 1994 off-Broadway production, aren't fit for the prime-time mass. ("Just one arrow can shoot you down, or brush a cherub's face"? Can I get an "amen"? No? I didn't think so.)
I was ultimately left wondering why Commedia Beauregard took an interest in this thin, experimental drama, with its arms-length insights and cumbersome structure. Naturally, it's because its author sheltered children under Nazi occupation, then rose to become a Catholic Bishop under Soviet occupation; he was, in short, a man of great fire. I can accept that he was a mediocre dramatist, yet I can find little evidence here of a mind of depth and range. If anything, the show's preachiness and self-certainty presage its author's later inflexibility and retreat into dogma.
Who knows, though: Perhaps The Jewler's Shop will thrill the good folks who've been scolding the U of M for its upcoming staging of Dario Fo's vile apostasy, The Pope and the Witch. It's a marketplace of ideas, people; step up and buy a ticket.