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New York Notebook

When an Irresistible Truth Meets an Immovable Belief

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page C01

NEW YORK -- Though the words are uttered onstage by a Muslim holy man locked in a fractious religious squabble in a remote West African village, they bear universal significance. As apt, say, to a story set in a Roman Catholic parish in the Bronx as to one depicting a battle over faith in the sub-Sahara:

"There are three truths," the Islamic mystic declares in Peter Brook's bone-dry mounting of the fable-like "Tierno Bokar." "My truth, your truth and the truth."


Djeneba Kone, left, Sotigui Kouyate and Helene Patarot calmly explore their faith in Peter Brook's "Tierno Bokar." (Pascal Victor -- Maxppp)

It's a wonderful aphorism, and it very plainly lays out the central struggle in the latest piece to be brought to this country by the 80-year-old Brook, who over the years has grown ever more fascinated by the folkways of the developing world. But the African sage's declaration also burrows to the heart of another play about the painful testing of deeply held belief, John Patrick Shanley's crackling Catholic drama, "Doubt."

"Tierno Bokar," named after the ascetic who is its principal character, revolves around the type of religious struggle that seems unfathomably arcane to those outside the faith: whether a certain prayer is meant to be chanted 11 times or 12. "Doubt" also concerns itself with a conviction adhered to so unswervingly that it causes grief to one of the faithful: a nun's certainty that a priest in her school is molesting some of the boys.

At a moment in history when absolutism about belief seems to be in vogue from the streets of Najaf to the Oval Office, it's enlightening to find representations of the phenomenon cropping up in works as vastly different as "Doubt" and "Tierno Bokar." Shanley's play, though thoroughly conventional, is smashingly well told and exceptionally well acted. It has just moved to Broadway after a successful off-Broadway engagement. And last week it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, the first play in some time to deserve its Pulitzer beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Brook's more idiosyncratic piece, running for the month in a converted Barnard College gymnasium in Morningside Heights, all but ignores a playgoer's expectations for an urgent distillation of life. The narrative does not so much flow over rapids as settle in deep pools. Often, alas, the stagnation proves all-consuming.

"Doubt," on the other hand, has if anything grown in dramatic weight and power with its move from the Manhattan Theatre Club to the Walter Kerr Theatre. The four-character play, told in 95 efficient minutes, is the account of a Bronx Catholic school in 1964 and the efforts of its principal, Sister Aloysius (the remarkable Cherry Jones), to confront and expose the charismatic Father Flynn (Brian F. O'Byrne). She's convinced he is a pedophile preying on the school's only black student.

Whose truth is the truth? Sister Aloysius has hers. She bases her belief on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. An inexperienced teacher (Heather Goldenhersh) tells her that an eighth-grade boy, after meeting with Father Flynn, returned to her class with an odd look on his face and liquor on his breath. It confirms for Sister Aloysius a suspicion she developed earlier in the year, when, as she tells it, she watched the priest touch the wrist of a boy, who pulled instinctively away.

Flynn, played by O'Byrne as brusque but charming, a religious man's man, radiates his own rock-solid faith, the indignation of the falsely accused. Is this the truth? The playwright tosses in incidents and characters to further cloud the issue. The black student's mother (the glorious Adriane Lenox) appears in Sister Aloysius's office to argue that the truth, in fact, doesn't matter to her, that she's happy her lonely, troubled son -- who she says is "that way" -- gets any attention at all from the popular priest.

Doug Hughes's staging, superbly choreographed, brings out the best in Shanley's muscular storytelling. The dramatist weaves the tales of the conflicting certainties with ease, though there's a bit of a tilt toward Sister Aloysius. This may in part be due to the captivating Jones. The reservoir of compassion under the sister's judgmental exterior warms the entire production. "Doubt" could have been a routine Broadway polemic, but it is instead a thoroughly humane survey of many truths at once.

"Tierno Bokar" has none of the commercial aspirations of "Doubt." The devotion of Brook and his Paris-based company, Theatre de Bouffes du Nord, to bringing to the stage stories from parts of the world that otherwise would remain unknown to audiences here imbues the project with a sense of higher purpose. Still, "Tierno Bokar" might be a more stirring experience if you weren't being made to feel that its ambitions are so much worthier than yours.

Performed in French with English surtitles, the play is not self-consciously theatrical in any way. Situated on the gymnasium floor is a modest platform covered in straw matting. A few other primitive props suggest trees, and two musicians sit to the side, providing with string and percussion an underscoring for the modest stage activity.

What plays out sluggishly over the 105 intermissionless minutes is the story of the fate of Tierno Bokar (the stoical Sotigui Kouyate), a village wise man who refuses to bend his beliefs to those of a sect more powerful than his, and who is shunned because of it.

As in "Doubt," the character with the steadiest moral compass is the one tested most gravely. Here, too, the perspectives on truth are refracted in a manner that lets an audience understand that no one person holds a monopoly on it. In this outing, however, the storytelling is only slightly less arid than the landscape in which it is set.

Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley. Directed by Doug Hughes. Sets, John Lee Beatty; costumes, Catherine Zuber; lighting, Pat Collins; original music and sound, David van Tieghem. Approximately 95 minutes. At the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., New York. Call 800-432-7250 or visit www.telecharge.com/Doubt.

Tierno Bokar, text by Marie-Helene Estienne. Directed by Peter Brook. Music, Toshi Tsuchitori and Antonin Stahly; lighting, Philippe Vialatte; set, Christopher D. Buckley and Abdou Ouologuem; With Habib Dembele, Rachid Djaidani, Djeneba Kone, Tony Mpoudja, Bruce Myers, Helene Patarot, Dorcy Rugamba, Pitcho Womba Konga. Approximately 1 hour 45 minutes. Through April 26 at Barnard Hall, Broadway and 117th Street, New York. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.


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