KPBS AIRDATE: June 06, 2003
You don’t need to know much about the Bible, art history or international politics to appreciate “Pentecost,” but patience and acute listening will be well rewarded. This deep, rich, 1994 drama by British playwright David Edgar is vast and expansive, with its multicultural cast and characters, multiple languages, diverse accents and numerous storylines. There’s a lot here, maybe even too much for one play. At the intermission, I wondered if Edgar was going to bring on the kitchen sink in the second act — and he just about did.
“Pentecost” is about heritage and homeland, collective memory and identity, recalling or ignoring the past, restoring or obliterating art. In a forgotten church in an unnamed Balkan country, a fresco is discovered by the earnest assistant curator of the national museum. She calls in an English art historian to verify her claim that this is a history-changing piece of art that predates the groundbreaking 15th-century work of Giotto. Gabriella wants to move the fresco to the national museum, for protection, and to prove to the world that there is value and constructive history in her poor, beleaguered, non-Western country. Before she can say “okey dokely,” the hordes descend: two priests; a skeptical American art historian; and in a surprising twist, a ragtag group of refugees seeking asylum and holding the art-mavens hostage.
The finale is emotionally shocking and visually breathtaking. On the way to the climax, there is a flood of ideas, theories, lectures and observations — about art, Western imperialism and cross-cultural communication. Huge chunks of dialogue are in foreign tongues and the disparate refugees can’t even understand each other. They have a shared experience of oppression and subjugation, and find unity in music, dance and storytelling. Many wonderful tales, but at 3+ hours, they begin to overwhelm. Just focus on the magical genius of Michael Yeargan’s set, with its jaw-dropping construction and deconstruction of the fresco, and the wonderfully varied lights and costumes. The cast, too, is flawless, if not always comprehensible. At a time when art is de-funded or looted, when nation-less and homeless people abound worldwide, it’s good to be jolted, stimulated, and made to think. ….
And while you’re at it, consider Lee Blessing’s “Eleemosynary,” another reflection on the celebration or obliteration of history and identity, painted on a much smaller and more personal canvas. Three generations of women search for their unique sense of self in the beautiful, spare production at La Jolla Stage Company. Directed by Kristan Clark, Shirley Eldred, Anahid Shahrik and 18 year-old Rachael Van Wormer bring humor and heartbreak to this aching tale of mothers and daughters.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.