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    Low comedy and high ideals Essay

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    He’s an extraordinary playwright because he tends to handle very large issues–there’s such admirable, courageous ambition in his work. He also has an extremely courageous theatrical sense. Some of the effects he calls for in his plays simply can’t be realized.” With this animated rush of words, Jeff Steitzer talks about Peter Barnes, the English playwright he has championed in this country since 1987–and whose most recent play, Sunsets and Glories, has its American premiere under Steitzer’s direction at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theatre through Nov. 15. “What can I say?” he allows. “I get sort of blithery when I talk about him.”

    If Steitzer, like other Barnes enthusiasts, has trouble communicating the spine-tingling pleasure induced by the playwright’s works–which range from such plays as The Ruling Class, The Bewitched and his most savage work, Laughter! (which begins in the time of Ivan the Terrible then leaps forward to Nazi Germany and Auschwitz); numerous adaptations of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama; and the the screenplay of the recent film Enchanted April–it may be because Barnes is something of a rarified taste. (One English critic began his review of Barne’s adaptation of Jonson’s The Alchemist with the question, “Will no one drop Peter Barnes down a deep well, and a couple of tons of earth after him?”)

    Epic in scope, propelled by scorching wit and bawdy humor, Barnes’s comedies aren’t merely black; they’re lined with pitch. A heady mixture of low comedy and high ideas, the plays are pungent critiques of religious power, class and authority (ecclesiastical and political) that unfold through a fairground framework of jokes, puns and tap-dancing.

    Two sides of a coin

    Barnes is best known in America for Red Noses, an exuberant song-and-dance extravaganza set in the 14th century, in which a band of monks tour plague-stricken France offering comedy as a salve against the Black Death. In essential Barnesian style, the troupe grows to include a blind juggler, a stand-up comic with a stutter and a pair of tap-dancing brothers who share one good leg. Written in 1978 and first produced by England’s Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985 (an instance of delayed gratification typical for first productions of Barnes’s work), Red Noses has been mounted in this country by a number of resident theatres, including such highly physical, actor-centered ensembles as the Minneapolis-based Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the Dell’Arte Players Company of Blue Lake, Calif.

    Steitzer himself has directed the play on two different occasions: its U.S. premiere at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in 1987, and (with David Ira Goldstein) the following year at ACT, during his second season as artistic director. His current production of Sunsets and Glories, featuring Red Noses veterans and longtime collaborators Laurence Ballard and Peter Silbert (the pair have appeared in 40 shows together over 17 years), draws contextually upon the earlier play. “In a way it’s like looking at two sides of one coin,” Steitzer explains. “Red Noses is about people from the bottom of the heap. In this play, we begin at the top and wander down the corridors of the highest power imaginable at that time, papal power.”

    Set in late 13th-century Italy during a time of papal transition, Sunsets and Glories examines the grimly comic struggles between Church and State as both bastions of power engage in a desperate effort to maintain the status quo. Barnes casts a scathing eye on three popes in succession: Nicholas IV, who appears only briefly before (as Barnes’s stage direction puts it) “God’s massive foot stamps down from the flies squashing him flat with a loud squelch”; Peter de Morrone, later Pope Celestine V (Peter Silbert), a pure and saintly man; and Cardinal Benedict Gaetani, later Pope Boniface VIII (Laurence Ballard), who engineers Morrone’s destruction because “the Holy Father is good but he isn’t feared … and who knows what hellish chain of events will result from just one act of unconsidered goodness?”

    “Basically,” says Steitzer, “Barnes has written the same play over and over and over again. What happens in a world gone bad when a good person is injected into it, when a saint walks into our lives? Obviously, this play has a very pessimistic conclusion: We can’t tolerate the complete revolution that these people inevitably represent.”

    Twisted manuscripts

    “The three popes–Morrone, Gaetani and Nicholas–all made a mess of it,” Barnes once noted to his loyal Boswell, critic Bernard Dukore. “One of them did it through love, one did it through power, and the other did it through a bit of both.” In an unpredictable election year in which more than one candidate has flaunted power under the guise of love, the resonances of the play are almost too good to be true.

    Neither Steitzer nor his collaborators, however–particularly the production’s designers–are anxious to draw any overt parallels between the power machinations of medieval Italy and contemporary America. (“The assumption is that people will be able to sniff it out for themselves,” the director asserts. “There was power in the 1300s and there’s power now.”) They emphasize instead a design that transcends the boundaries of historical research without becoming, as Steitzer says, stupidly anachronistic.

    “When I first read the play, I felt it was about decay,” observes set designer Charlene Hall, whose research led her to a study of Romanesque architecture and the ecclesiastical history of illuminated manuscripts. The style of the manuscripts–“naive and simple, but at the same time twisted”–eventually became a basis for the corroded, aged look of the set, which Hall describes as “a combination of the corrupt and the pious, architecturally realistic but not descriptive of the period in any specific way.”

    Ferocious anger and clownish laughter

    For composer and sound designer Todd Barton, already an expert on Renaissance and medieval music, Sunsets and Glories posed a somewhat different challenge. Barton’s score combines use of the “Dies Irae” and other music specified by Barnes, original songs and what the composer describes as “music and sounds, both abstract and theatrical, that people haven’t heard before. The play demands the flavor of the Middle Ages with a 20th-century spin.”

    Steitzer describes the ideal actors for a Barnes play as “people who can handle the emotional content of the play, who can handle the remarkable language that he creates that reminds you of the Jacobeans but is also contemporary, and at the same time are clowns.” A spin on the century, fueled at once by a ferocious anger and a clown’s laughter, is precisely what the epic ambitions of Peter Barnes are meant to achieve.

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