January 16, 2003
The Devils of Loudun
One of the wonders of great theatre is the way a group of actors and designers -- often with minimal budget for lighting, music and sound effects, instead relying greatly on the talents of the performers -- can create an atmosphere so completely that you feel immersed in an environment from another time, place or culture.
So it is with "The Devils of Loudun," an indelibly stark yet flawed work by the theater group Dzieci. Inspired by Aldous Huxley's 1952 novel of an actual event in 17th century France, the story follows the case of Father Urbain Grandier, a priest who was accused and eventually executed for "bewitching" the Ursuline nuns of Loudun -- essentially, it seems, for inducing sexual feelings and behavior in several of the young women.
The political angles of the case makes it all the more tragic, since the priest was martyred in part because the environment of fear and suspicion the Church elders of the time created allowed the nuns' Prioress, Sister Jeanne de Agnes, to use the priest's harmless flirtatious behavior essentially for her own self-aggrandisement.
The cast members are uniformly terrific, playing the roles with integrity and passion, especially the Christ-like Matt Mitler (who also directed) as Grandier, Yvonne Brecht as Anges and Bob Strock as the Church's chief prosecutor (and the show's music director).
Special mention, however, should be made for Johnny Melville, whose dual role as Satan and Cardinal Richelieu (which, considering the Cardinal's infamous historical reputation, makes for an interesting dynamic) is played with astounding power. He successfully shifts from house-shattering fire-and-brimstone speeches to unworldly vocals that chill like nails down a chalkboard.
On the technical side, Strock's strong music direction and the uncredited sound and lighting effects subtlely draw the audience into this world.
On the downside, the show's text -- drawn almost entirely from sacred and literary sources, from the Bible to authors like Goethe, Milton, Luther and Donne -- while evoking the time period exceedingly well, is also so dense and archaically poetic it is unpenetrable.
In fact, the difficult text becomes such a distraction that much of the show is spent trying to figure out what is happening at any particular moment, despite Mitler's otherwise sharp direction -- a real loss considering the show's numerous other good points.
Original review posted here.