For Perloff and ACT, it was out of the ethnic frying pan and into the theological fire
You couldn’t imagine a pair of less conspicuous protesters. Stationed at the narrow entryway of the Marine’s Memorial Theatre in San Francisco, the two middle-aged men in suits and ties politely, almost shyly, handed out pamphlets to patrons on their way in to see the American Conservatory Theatre production of Dario Fo’s The Pope and the Witch.
But the text of the proffered four-page booklet, expensively printed on heavy cream-colored bond, told a more impassioned story. Written by Wade C. Hughan, a longtime ACT subscriber and president of a church-sanctioned lay group called Catholics for Truth and Justice, the essay roundly bashed ACT for putting on a play which, in Hughan’s words and emphases, “at heart attacks the Church and the Faith of over 800 million people” and “ridicules” the current Pope.
That was only one of the many salvos fired in a public flap that raged for weeks in San Francisco, catching up the city’s Catholic Archdiocese, the local theatre community and private and corporate arts funders. The conflict embroiled new ACT artistic director Carey Perloff and associate director Richard Seyd in a controversy they never anticipated–and one that seemed curiously tangential to the production itself.
The fuss was by no means the first episode in Carey Perloff’s baptism by fire. The former head of New York’s Classic Stage Company assumed artistic control of San Francisco’s largest nonprofit theatre last spring, and soon after found herself ensnared in the many-tentacled embrace of the city’s highly schismatic, very complicated, extremely tempestuous cultural body politic.
Apparently no one had alerted Perloff ahead of time that San Franciscans of various allegiances will rush en masse to the barricades at the first provocation, the least suspicion of inequity or insult. They do it as a matter of honor and principle, but also because crying foul is almost a regional sport.
And maybe Perloff didn’t realize how quickly one controversy can spawn another in a city that has an historic flair for insider scandals, and a conservative tradition as strong as its better-publicized radical one. (Consider David Belasco’s production of a Passion Play in the laissez-faire 1870s, which aroused the ire of many churchmen and led to a city ordinance banning any portrayal of Jesus Christ on local stages for the next 50 years.)
Perloff’s imbroglio began several months ago, when she cut a planned production of Ken Ludwig’s Broadway farce Lend Me a Tenor from the 1992-93 season roster. ACT company members (African Americans and others) objected to a scene in which two white opera singers don blackface makeup to appear in Verdi’s Otello. The play cancellation immediately drew sharp criticism from those who felt Perloff had capitulated to political pressure, and praise from others for racial sensitivity.
Dismay from the pulpit
But in July, Perloff leapt from the ethnic frying pan into the theological fire when she announced Tenor would be replaced with the American premiere of The Pope and the Witch. Fo’s agitprop fantasia, translated for ACT by San Francisco Mime Troupe playwright Joan Holden, concerns a holy father who suddenly embraces the idea of birth control and heroin legalization. The pontiff’s change of heart is triggered by a mind-bending encounter with an unorthodox woman “healer,” who ministers to the poor by performing illegal abortions and supplying addicts with drugs.
After Perloff’s announcement, a guest editorial by Wade Hughan in the San Francisco Chronicle called ACT to task for “a very selective cultural sensitivity along lines currently politically correct.” Other Catholics also protested, and in October, San Francisco Archbishop John R. Quinn joined the chorus. From the pulpit of St. Mary’s Cathedral he expressed dismay over a wave of cultural expressions he labeled “defamatory” attacks on Catholicism. He cited the irreverent lampoon of Christianity in Gore Vidal’s new novel, Live From Golgotha, Irish pop star Sinead O’Connor’s defiant rip-up of a Pope John Paul II photo on TV’s Saturday Night Live, and the Fo play, which he said portrayed the pope as “something of a lunatic.”
The debate quickly escalated. Catholics for Truth and Justice urged a boycott of ACT and a pressure campaign to dissuade funders from making further contributions to the theatre. (ACT is in the midst of raising $22 million to renovate its earthquake-damaged Geary Theatre.) A flurry of stories, letters and opinion pieces on the issue appeared in the Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner and other local organs, as clergymen, critics, artists and columnists argued whether Fo’s play refutes essential Catholic doctrine, or just current Vatican policy. ACT funders were lobbied on the issue, but with one possible exception did not withdraw support from the theatre.
This time Perloff held fast, though she did meet with Archbishop Quinn and other Catholics to hear their concerns. In a story printed on Oct. 23 she told the Chronicle, “We are excited at the dialogue |the production~ has engendered, at the same time we are appalled at the hysteria being generated by a warm and evenhanded play.” The Nov. 3 opening of The Pope and the Witch went on as planned, under the direction of Richard Seyd.
After all the media bulletins, the defense of artistic freedom and airing of injuries, the theological debates and weighing of sensitivities, it seems ironic (though perhaps inevitable) that the show wasn’t half so interesting as the hullabaloo around it.
A throng of orphans
Apart from the fuss over its theme, The Pope and the Witch had been eagerly awaited for other reasons. It marked the first time ACT produced a play by Fo, Italy’s finest comic playwright. Key participants in the production were new to ACT, though familiar fixtures of Bay Area theatre: director Seyd, known for his work with the Eureka Theatre, the Pickle Family Circus and Berkeley Repertory Theatre; the dexterous clown-actor Geoff Hoyle, who earlier starred in the hit Eureka Theatre version of Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist and appeared in Fo’s staging of Archangels Don’t Play Pinball at American Repertory Theatre; and such San Francisco Mime Troupe veterans as Joe Bellan, Joan Mankin and Sharon Lockwood.
But The Pope and the Witch proved a rickety vehicle for all that spry comic talent. In its broadly zany first act, power circles inside the Vatican tremble when the fictitious Pope (played by Hoyle) has what amounts to a nervous breakdown. As he surveys a throng of 100,000 Third World orphans converging on Vatican Square for his blessing, the pontiff goes into a flop-sweat. He’s struck by the unwelcome awareness that millions of young innocenti throughout the world die of starvation each year. Rethinking his denunciation of birth control, he shouts to heaven, “You said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’ Well here they are raise them yourself!”
The healer Elisa (Sharon Lockwood) is smuggled into holy quarters disguised as a nun, and, as reporters amass for a papal press conference, Elisa tries out various wacky spells to jar her patient into a new consciousness. In one inspired acrobatic moment in Seyd’s staging, Hoyle dangles from the chandelier and sings Italian folk songs to cure his “crucifix seizure”–a paralysis that leaves his body frozen in the shape of a cross.
Director Seyd inserts lazzi in every possible niche, equipping the Vatican’s middle-management clergy with cordless phones strapped under their habits, allowing Howard Swain as Father Faggio, an anxious Vatican flunky, and Ray Reinhardt’s apoplectic assistant Cardinal Pialli plenty of room to dither.
Cut the Italian politics
But the mugging and slapstick cannot save Act 2 from the languors. A papal visit to Elisa’s back-alley clinic introduces a batch of didactic social commentary and a pair of stumblebum druglord hoods. The Pope has little to do then but to become a listening post. By the time he gets back to the Vatican, provoking a violent church rebellion and his own martyrdom with his newly progressive attitudes, the character has become a frenetic cipher.
As is her specialty, translator Holden worked in quips about current U.S. affairs whenever she could–i.e., Bush calling the Pope after the American election to ask what happened to the miracle he ordered. But fearing that audiences would be unfamiliar with Italian politics, Holden excised the play’s original references to the scandal linking the Vatican bank with Mafia drug traffic. Without that, Fo’s satirical thrusts seem diffused and somewhat arbitrary, and the final scene of conspiracy and assassination is not fully motivated.
But even if the bank scandal had been left in The Pope and the Witch, this Fo play would probably not have traveled well to the U.S. (It apparently found a warmer reception in England.) It’s not a question of whether the script offends anyone; of course it does, just as The Merchant of Venice will always bother some Jewish viewers, Lend Me a Tenor may continue to raise hackles, and some Catholics still aren’t wild about Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. But Fo’s comedy is no ad hominum attack on Catholicism, nor a personalized mugging of a spiritual leader. It criticizes the Vatican as a corporation, and challenges some social directives that have been hotly debated within the Church itself.
Waving a red flag
There must be a reason why The Pope and the Witch could be performed by Fo and his charismatic wife-partner Franca Rame in Italy, on state-subsidized television, without a murmur of protest from the Vatican or the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic citizenry. I’d venture it has to do with an acceptance of Fo as a theatrical clown sanctioned, expected, encouraged to lampoon and demystify his country’s most omnipotent institutions. That is the role Fo has carved for himself over a long, prolific, often controversial career, and it is one he continues to play to the hilt. But it is not the position ACT, well known in the past for its rendition of classics and stylish comedies of manners, has occupied in San Francisco. If ACT decides to add blunt, topical social criticism to its mix, subscribers may need some help to make the shift–and the theatre should be prepared to wave goodbye to the ones who won’t.
That doesn’t mean that Perloff and “the new ACT” will have to avoid offending anyone at all costs. But the Vatican is the Vatican is the Vatican. And this Pope (though Fo does not call him John Paul II and in Hoyle’s reading, he did not sport a Polish accent) is hard not to confuse with The Pope. In ethnically hypersensitized San Francisco, where the new mayor is an Irish-American ex-police chief and the president of the Board of Supervisors hails from a large, entrenched Italian-American political community, the Pope and the Witch is nothing if not a red flag.
Nevertheless, ACT can look on the bright side: Only four subscribers took up the offer to exchange their tickets for another show; fund-raising has (so far) been unaffected by the conflict; and for the first time in years ACT’s repertoire was a hot topic of discussion at Bay Area breakfast tables.