When The Pope and the Witch finally opened last Friday night at the University of Minnesota, after Thursday's heavenly white-out, a group of seminarians gathered outside in the cold to chant and sing in protest. This followed Archbishop Harry J. Flynn's letter to the Star-Tribune last year, in which he stated of the play: "We could hardly find a nightmarish parody of the papacy, a fundamental tenet of our faith that has 2,000 years of history, to be very funny."
One wonders whether the archbishop might be missing the point of satire by terming Dario Fo's work "nightmarish," but those earnest seminarians at least made a case for seeing their side of the story. The final judgment? Well, Fo's play is indeed scandalous if one adheres to the creed of papal infallibility. Aside from that, the worst that can be said of The Pope and the Witch is that it aims at the broad side of the Vatican, and gives it an enthusiastic thumping.
Fo hints that some uncomplicated laughs are in store from the opening, when a visibly pregnant nun wanders languorously through the Vatican, sprucing up the drapes with a DustBuster. Soon enough we meet a series of stock characters, including the officious loyalist Cardinal Pialli (Christopher Kehoe), and the scheming cardinal waiting to clip Pialli's wings (Noah Rios). But Vatican intrigue quickly falls to the side when the pious assemblage looks out the window at St. Peter's Square, where 100,000 Third World orphans have gathered to protest the Pope's contraception policies.
Pope Benedict could probably have the whole rotten lot excommunicated by lunchtime. Not so in Fo's farce. By the time we encounter Il Papa, we've first met his shrink, Professor Ridolf (Colin Waitt), and the nun who accompanies him (Kat Wodtke). The pope (Brant Miller), God bless him, is a major head case, barely in control of his emotions. And for some unaccountable reason, he has scheduled a press conference in which he plans to justify his policies to the world.
It's to director Robert Rosen's credit that he opts for a light, funny approach, rather than giving us the pope as raging madman. Miller is, of course, an acting student, and far too young for his part. Rather than performing under an inch of makeup and a passel of mannerisms, though, he charms with easygoing irreverence and a deft touch of slapstick.
After Wodtke's nun temporarily heals the pope of his latest bout of psychosomatic suffering, we learn that her character isn't a nun at all, and that she picked up her healing mojo from (gasp) witch doctors in Africa (Fo could scarcely have picked a more hackneyed scenario, but a farce is a farce.) Swiss Guards summarily eject the phony nun from the Vatican's sanctified grounds, and Wodtke reveals the vengeful sorceress hidden beneath her dowdy habit.
In the second act, Wodtke's character, called Healer, turns up running a clinic for drug addicts. More precisely, she shoots up junkies at a low cost in order to keep them from imperiling their lives on the street. Or something. Fo's dialogue turns preachy and didactic, and Jason Resler's costumes, spot-on in the first act, render the squalor silly and cartoonish. I found myself looking for real grit in the scene that follows, when gun-toting Mafiosi forcibly inject the pope with heroin. Probably the most outrageous sequence of the evening occurs when the CEO of the Holy Roman Church undergoes what appears to be a very pleasant trip.
Proving the popular '80s theory that one hit can ruin a life, the pope returns to the Vatican with an edict declaring that drugs should be legalized and organized crime eradicated in Italy and elsewhere. Furthermore, condoms should be made readily available to everyone in the world. Oh yeah, and under his supervision, the Catholic Church will divest itself of its vast wealth, which it will then distribute among the world's poor. Miller has obvious fun with this scene, as the constricted and neurotic pope gets his groove on and frees his mind (with Wodtke's eager assistance).
For all its pinpricks at church policy, Fo's real insubordination is against the church's institutional pomp and privilege. Our own archbishop and his ideological kin could surely craft a stolid defense of Catholic theology and practice, but it's hard to argue with the equivalent of a thunderous whoopee cushion.