Theater Review

Factory 449 brings ingenuity to 'The Saint Plays' but should've done fewer

Whimsical: Factory 449 deserves credit for daring to tackle "The Saint Plays," bringing ingenuity to its interpretation. But it should have taken on fewer stories.
Whimsical: Factory 449 deserves credit for daring to tackle "The Saint Plays," bringing ingenuity to its interpretation. But it should have taken on fewer stories. (C Stanley Photography)
By Celia Wren
Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hats off to the young theater company Factory 449 for daring to tackle "The Saint Plays," a set of phantasmagorical mini-dramas by the experimental playwright Erik Ehn. Often admired, less often produced, the religiously inclined Ehn writes whimsical meditations that are powered by dream logic and rarified mystical argument. His saint plays, in particular, teem with Mad-Libs-style juxtapositions: In a riff on St. George, for instance, a modern winged girl baptizes a medieval knight's shoe.

Factory 449's production, directed by company co-founder John Moletress, brings considerable ingenuity to the interpretation of such cryptic material. That being said, it was a mistake to mount six selections from Ehn's sprawling saint-play cycle: a set of, say, four would have made for a more satisfying audience experience. A little hallucinatory imagery onstage can go a long way, after all. As this show marched solemnly past the two-hour mark, and surreal scene after surreal scene pondered the nature of suffering and sanctity, I wished someone would wallop me over the head with the collected works of Andre Breton, just to put me out of my misery.

To be fair, Moletress and his colleagues could hardly pass up the chance to mount the world premieres of two saint playlets, one of them ("The Monkey Seller") written specifically for Factory 449. The temptation to round the show out with older works that -- within Ehn's esoteric parameters -- vary in mood must have been strong.

Thanks to set designer Greg Stevens, you get a taste of the varied moods, and of Ehn's eccentric sensibility, when you take your seat at the Church Street Theatre. On the deep-set stage, people are playing cards in front of a dingy mobile home. Nearby, there's a dangling rope ladder and a traveling-show booth with red curtains. Overhead hang banners that depict five saints: Joan of Arc, John the Baptist, Catherine of Alexandria, George (of dragon-slaying fame) and Rose of Lima (inspiration for two of the six plays, no doubt because she is native to the Americas). Colorful but coarsely drawn, the banners resemble stained-glass windows projected onto sackcloth.

More arresting images crop up as the production proceeds. A bear-headed figure gestures mysteriously with a model fish. Shrouded puppets examine a body in a shopping cart (Lisa Hodsoll, who's marvelously fierce when she's not playing dead). Salome (Belen Oyola-Rebaza), nemesis of a sunglasses-wearing John the Baptist (Sun King Davis), dances in red-and-white cheerleader attire.

In "Wholly Joan," the most affecting play (also the shortest and most straightforward), women in white dresses (Hodsoll; Oyola-Rebaza; Lorena Sabogal) whirl around Joan of Arc (Zehra Fazal) as she's burned at the stake. Afterward, a glowing red ball represents Joan's miraculously un-burned heart.

Alas, there are more plodding sequences, too. The two Rose of Lima plays concern mass death ("Thistle" deals with a massacre in El Salvador; "The Monkey Seller" fuses a biblical story with an account of the 1978 Jonestown mass suicide) and are particularly heavy-going.

Still, the show's better moments reflect credit on Moletress's inventiveness and the talents of his designers, including puppet designer Betsy Rosen. Lighting designer Cory Ryan Frank conjures up religious epiphanies with eerie pizazz. And sound designer Ian Armstrong's bursts of radio static seem to speak about the difficulty of knowing the divine.

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