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Burning Coal Theatre Company: Pentecost Combines an Art History Mystery with a Timely Lesson in Geopolitical Reality

January 25, 2007 - Raleigh, NC:


Burning Coal Theatre Company’s revival of Pentecost by British dramatist and screenwriter David Edgar combines an intriguing art history mystery about the origin of naturalistic painting in Western art with a timely lesson in geopolitical reality about the increasing volatility of the dispossessed people of Europe and the Middle East, who are cruelly shuttled from country to country, and then from camp to camp, without the opportunity to return to their native lands or put down new roots in the adopted country of their choice.

Pentecost is set in an abandoned Romanesque church (and former potato warehouse, torture chamber during Nazi occupation, etc.) in an unnamed Eastern European country formerly behind the Iron Curtain. (It could be the half-fictional country of Illyria, where William Shakespeare set his classic romantic comedy Twelfth Night.)

The discovery by national museum acting deputy chief curator Gabriella Pecs (Jenn Suchanec) of an extraordinary hidden fresco similar to, but apparently dated before, a watershed work called “Lamentation” by trend-setting Florentine painter and architect Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267-1337), whose three-dimensional naturalistic paintings transcended the flat stylizations of Byzantine art threatens to make the obscure country church rival Giotto’s “Lamentation” in the Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy, as a tourist attraction.

Two foreign art experts—British art historian Oliver Davenport (Tony Cormier) and American art historian Leo Katz (Vincent Lamberti)—vigorously debate the authenticity and importance and commercial potential of Pecs’ discovery: a heretofore unknown fresco of the crucified Christ, lying in the arms of the Virgin Mary, in the midst of his disciples. If the fresco is real and dated a century before “Lamentation,” it will rewrite the history of Western art.

The art historians’ debate has reached a boiling point when it is rudely interrupted by a motley group of refugees who burst in, carrying automatic weapons, and seize the church and take Pecs, Davenport, and Katz hostage in order to make demands on the government. That’s when academic debate takes a backseat to more pressing concerns, such as survival.

Playwright David Edgar brings up a host of hot-button issues about art and politics in his new and improved script for this riveting drama, which was the breakthrough hit of Burning’s 1998 season. Performing this difficult play with all new cast members on a thrust stage, between two tiers of seats built to emulate the shaky scaffolding on a construction site adds a degree of difficulty to the proceedings that Burning Coal director Jerome Davis and his stellar cast had not quite overcome on opening night (Jan. 25th).

As, first, the vehement art history debate and, then, the life-or-death struggle to survive occupation by an angry mob of displaced persons unfolds, the dramatic focus shifts in not always predictable ways. Moreover, the fact that there are 18 actors portraying approximately 30 different characters, while most of them they speak heavily accented English and eight other unfamiliar languages—usually at the top of their voices, often at the same time, and sometimes with accents so thick they render their words unintelligible—which puts a premium on diction and proper projection.

Unlike the miracle in Jerusalem that occurred on the biblical day of Pentecost, the characters in Pentecost are usually working at cross-purposes, not united by the infusion of the Holy Spirit—which allowed each member of the multitude listening to Simon Peter and the other Apostles preach to hear and understand their testimony in his or her native language.

Although her accent melted away at times when events heated up, Jenn Suchanec created a completely convincing characterization of Gabriella Pecs. The accent of Tony Cormier, who played Oliver Davenport, never faltered—and neither did the passion and polish that he brought to this role. However, Vincent Lamberti’s smirking, hair-tossing, abrasive performance as sardonic American Leo Katz, who is the skunk at the garden party of this potentially history-making discovery, frequently veered over the top. A little sarcasm goes a long way, and director Jerry Davis needs to rein in Lamberti’s histrionics.

Robin Dorff was suitably oily as Mikhail Czaba, the wily Minister for Restoration of National Monuments, and poignant as Nico, a Gypsy who claims he and his daughter Cleopatra (Melissa Patterson) are displaced Bosnians. Quinn Hawkesworth gave a gritty performance as former dissident—now no-nonsense presiding magistrate—Anna Jedlikova, whose ruling will seal the fresco’s fate; and Jason Weeks was suitably obstreperous as clean-shaven Pusbas, leader of a group of right-wing extremists with anti-Semitic tendencies, as well as the goateed Abdul, a former Afghan freedom fighter with a hair-trigger temper.

Although her remarks were not always intelligible, Olivia Griego also had her moments as the refugees’ hot-tempered leader Yasmin, a self-described “stateless Palestinian” who called Kuwait home until the first Gulf War; Stephen LeTrent and Torrey Lawrence were suitably menacing as Raif, the scowling Azeri, and Antonio, a distraught Mozambican, respectively; Al Singer made the travails of the kvetching Ukrainian Grigori particularly memorable; and Ivy Shaw added a memorable cameo as Czaba’s ultra-sexy, computer-savvy secretary.

Greg Paul and Ian Finley did not quite imbue Orthodox Father Sergei Bojovic and Catholic Father Petr Karolyi with enough personality to make them stand out; Lynne Guglielmi Barbour was hard to hear as beautiful blonde TV hostess—and fellow hostage—Toni Newsome; and the colorful characters created by Becca Johnson, Ashley Quinones, and Amanda Watson were not so distinctive as some of the other cameo performances.

On opening night, Pentecost had not quite gelled. But the potential is there—if Vincent Lamberti tones down his performance and the diction and projection improve across the board—for this production of David Edgar’s powerful play to approach the overall excellence of Burning Coal’s 1998 hit.

There are problems with the fresco, which looks nothing like a great work of art, and the partially dismantled brick wall that partially covers it on scenic designer Robert John Andrusko’s otherwise excellent set. These problems are most acute during the play’s climactic scene, which doesn’t quite pack the wallop it needs and cannot be described here without ruining the suspense. Lighting designer Matthew Adelson’s brooding atmospheric illumination of the shadowy church interior works well, and costume designer Kat Henwood outfits the cast in an impressive array of contemporary fashions that underscore certain elements of each character.

Note: Pentecost playwright and screenwriter David Edgar, who also wrote The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, will conduct a seminar on the “State of Play: the Current State of British Theatre” at 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 3rd, at Quail Ridge Books, 3522 Wade Ave., Raleigh, NC. Edgar is the “house writer” for the Royal Shakespeare Company and faculty member of the University of Birmingham, England, where he founded and runs Great Britain’s first postgraduate playwriting program. He also contributes regularly to BBC television and radio; and he wrote the screenplay for the 1986 historical film Lady Jane, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Helena Bonham-Carter and Patrick Stewart. For more information about this seminar, telephone 919/834-4001 or visit http://www.burningcoal.org/

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents Pentecost Friday-Saturday, Jan. 26-27, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 28, at 2 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, Jan. 31-Feb. 3 and Feb. 7-10, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 4 and 11, at 2 p.m. in the Kennedy Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $16 ($14 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel), except Jan. 28 “Pay What You Can” performance and $10 for groups of 10 or more. 919/834-4001 or etix via the presenter's site. NOTE: The Jan. 27th performance will be audio described by Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh. Burning Coal Theatre Company: http://www.burningcoal.org/Pentecost%20Page.htm.