“Wilt thou accept the pontificality?” What kind of question is that for a twitching, nervous nebbish of a soul living alone in a cold-water flat, subsisting on bread, water and cigarettes? But the question does intrigue.
What would you do? What if you ruled the Church? What would you change? These questions and others are poised and some answered in the current production of “Hadrian VII” at the Theater Company at Hubbard Hall through March 7.
Playwright Peter Luke’s seldom-seen “Hadrian VII” takes its inspiration from Frederick William Rolfe’s 1904 unorthodox novel of a deluded daydream of a seminary dropout who is called to don the miter and becomes the pope. Combining aspects of Rolfe’s eccentric life of constant self-deception into the script, Luke makes it clear that Rolfe’s novel was a thin disguise of his own imagined life.
Living a life of artistic imagination and fantasy, Rolfe was a master of deception, most notably deceiving himself. It is therefore fitting that playwright Luke should draft the real-life Rolfe to play himself in this play of fantasy.
Living in a tiny bedsit, trapped in poverty and squalor with a lustful landlady, the spastic and quaking Rolfe is visited by two men of the cloth who apologize for past misdeeds and promise to make things right by offering a trip to Rome. Upon arrival in the Vatican, an election seems imminent. As the cardinals ponder who the next pontiff should be, the ideas form, the conclave clutches and reveals a surprise to all as the white smoke rises.
With Hadrian’s installation an easy age seems certain, but plans change and the pontiff decides we need to look back at the actual words of inspiration and get back on track. Horrible conspiracies form and blackmail surfaces. Does the end justify the means?
The play does stimulate as it examines the ability of the Church to actually implement the teachings and instructions of Christ. The gap between lip service paid by a number of Christians to the uncomfortable demands made by Jesus and their behavior in everyday life seems curiously vast. Luke’s play pushes the buttons.
Some scenes seem most logical, as when the Cardinal stands aghast at the demands from Hadrian to give away the wealth of the Vatican treasure — Christ’s word is far from ambiguous — “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth.” The Cardinal stands stunned that The Word should be taken literally, not metaphorically. When another priest is told by Hadrian that the clergy should live on the good free will of the faithful, the priest balks and asks, “What if they do not give?” Hadrian’s response is simple: “Starve and go to heaven.” So battle lines are drawn across St. Peter’s Square.
As Rolfe, the man who morphs from fool to father figure, Doug Ryan steps into the character’s balance as he puts on the robe. The early scenes are riddled with business that seems a tad clownish, but the contrast between puppet and pontiff is clear and sharp. Kim Johnson Turner as the redoubtable landlady, Mrs. Crowe, is appropriately wanton and easily led by her partner in crime, Jeremiah Sant, the ever-reliable Richard Howe.
The radiance of cardinals and clergy is portrayed by the capable team of Joan Coombs, Liz Caspari, Anastasia Satterthwaite and Erik Barnum. They work well together as a force of dogma and they prove effective one-on-one when confronted by Hadrian’s commands for change. Most of the cast is required to double up and play more than one role, and while all succeed, Peter Dolocis excels, with a clever little send-up of Rolfe’s charwoman Agnes. While the role wasn’t written to be played in drag, the conceit works and it adds the right touch to an evening of fantasy.
John Hadden’s direction is able and spare. The simple set and lighting suffice, but one does wish for more frill with such a grand delusion. Costumer Karen Koziol makes some clever choices and adds to the warped dream by dressing the cardinals in the ubiquitous red, but the under-vestments are slightly askew, crafted from table linens and bedspreads. If it’s a choice, huzzah! If it wasn’t, divine inspiration exists!