Saturday 1 December 2018

Doubt, A Parable is a lesson about populist black-white ideas 
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Deny doubt. Project certainty. Berate unbelievers as infidels. Such is the nature of populist trends world-wide. Whether in America, Hungary, the UK, Saudi Arabia or in German districts formerly under the Soviet thumb. 

Interestingly, however, this life-view as created by John Patrick Shanley's 2004 script heralds the Pope Pius XII epoch of WWII. It is not a reaction against 21st century democratic liberal thought that populism these days hisses at. No question. What goes around comes around.

The source is a self-righteous nun who heads a grade school in Kennedy-epoch Bronx of the early 60's. Pope John XXIII's Vatican II loosening of the church's strictures is apostasy to her. She is a traditional Bible thumper. Terror grips her students and her soul as she espouses conformist, prescriptive doctrines of good-&-evil. They reel off her lips like epigrams. 

Sister Aloysius kicks off the show's action by insisting to a naif junior nun at her school that another teacher, Father Flynn, is molesting the only black student in their ranks. Why have doubt when you know -- and it's all you need to know, you believe -- that the student emerged from the priest's office with wine on his breath and a wrinkle across his brow. "I think it -- thus its truth must be a certainty!" is the drift of her solitary, cloistered brainwave.

Talulah Winkelman portrays Sister Aloysius who has all the certainty and confidence of moral rectitude that the traditional church was able to drive into her over the years. No need to harbour doubts when truths are self-obvious, she believes.
Photo credit : David Thomas Newham

This is not, however, a monochromatic bit of characterization by Mr. Shanley. Stage sophomore Olivia Lang as Sr. James projects a sympathetic and empathy-wrapt new Grade 8 teacher. Her joyful lack of artificiality is in studied contrast to the smug-seeming Sr. Aloysius (Talulah Winkelman), the school principal. Speaking of one oft-truant student Sr. Aloysius says "He has a restless mind." "But that's good!" Sr. James proclaims. "No, it isn't," retorts Sr. Aloysius. "Boys are made of gravel, soot and tarpaper. Don't be charmed by competence, because satisfaction is a vice. Innocence is a form of laziness," she coaches her junior colleague.

One could not help but think of Maggie Thatcher as a role model for the principal. Hard-edged decisiveness is the only antidote to moral relativism she suggests over-&-over. 

The primary doubt in the piece comes from Sr. Aloysius's belief, based on circumstantial 2nd-hand evidence, that Fr. Branden Flynn (David Thomas Newham) -- the boys' basketball coach -- has seduced the school's only black student, 12-year-old Donny Muller, after plying him with sacramental wine. When confronted, Fr. Flynn denies denies denies. Of course. Set in 1964 in the Bronx, the "old boys club" in the church will have half-a-century to go before they start looking at the man in the mirror and seeing their true skin, not make-up. 

The play starts and ends with examination of doubt, first by Fr. Flynn recalling "the secret of alienating sorrow" of folks upon JFK's assassination a year back. Sr. Aloysius calls his sermon "poetic", but she is 100% put off by community outreach efforts and his palsy-walsy coziness that are all the rage under Pope John. She instructs Sr. James : "I want to see the starch in your character being cultivated. You must be the students' fierce moral guardian. Stand at the door, you are the gatekeeper : they should be uncomfortable in your presence." 

In the end -- in Mr. Shanley's worst line of the play -- Sr. Aloysius echoes the doubt motif. Expressly. More effective had she said through her tears, "I feel adrift here; I only wish God would speak to me more plainly." 

The words "sexual politics" and "patriarchy" were virtually unknown expressions in 1964. But in Sr. Aloysius's realm they are raised pointedly, if obliquely. Fr. Flynn challenges her to "out" him if she dares : she will lose her prestigious job in the bargain, he declares. Later, young Donny's mother (Liza Huget) is summoned to the principal's office to be cross-examined about her son's relationship with Fr. Flynn. She tells of her son being beaten regularly by her husband because Donny "is that way" and Dad is apoplectic to learn this as the boy hits puberty. But, defiantly, Mom insists : "You can't hold my boy responsible for what God made him. Sometimes things are not black and white!" she shouts. 

Ultimately Sr. Aloysius seems to get her way. Fr. Flynn's chummy pulpit parables lose out when she tricks him into requesting a transfer to another parish. Earlier he explains his story-telling sermon technique to Sr. James by saying "The truth makes for a bad sermon. It tends to be confusing and have no clear conclusion." To Sr. Aloyisius, however, suspicion is less confusing. By directing how it will run its course, she brings about a clear conclusion even though it is based on a fairy tale she made up for the occasion.

Doubt, A Parable is black box theatre finely wrought by Seven Tyrants and its remarkable production crew. How a 450 square foot stage on the top floor of the Filipponi's notorious Penthouse strip club can embrace an audience so grippingly is a tribute to all concerned. Terrific delivery by all four actors amidst a compelling minimalist set by Lynda and Gary Chu lit "spot on" by Philip Schulz. 

Playwright Shanley states "Doubt requires more courage than conviction does, and more energy; because conviction is a resting place and doubt is infinite; it is a passionate exercise." 

The truth of his observation is being played out not just in The Vatican, but around the world on so many political stages. For a dramatic foray through dialogue about where the truth lies in today's world, this show is designed and delivered with precise, passionate performances that will deserve more than just one nod at next year's Jessie Awards.

Particulars : Script by John Patrick Shanley.  Produced by Seven Tyrants Theatre.  At the Tyrants Studio stage, top floor, The Penthouse Club on Seymour @ Nelson. On until December 14, 2018.  Run-time 90 minutes, one intermission.  Tickets & schedule information @ Tyrants

Production team :  Director Bill Devine.  Set and Prop Designers Lynda and Gary Chu.  Sound Designer Daniel Deorksen.  Slighting Designer Philip SchulzStage Manager Samantha Pauliuk. Costume Design The Company.  Publicist Marnie Wilson.  Front of House Manager Cobra Ramone.


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