Performance by Dzieci at Christ Church, Sparkill, Dec. 12, 2015
Lee Van Laer, Senior Editor, Parabola
It’s impossible for any photographs to do justice to a performance of Fools Mass.
All they can convey is the professional makeup job; and while the characters are compelling and pathetic, without the context of the performance, they run the risk of being comical or maudlin. The comical and maudlin feature in the Fools Mass, to be sure; but only using deft touches to illustrate the much deeper compassion which permeates the entire performance.
This theater is deeply interactive; the audience must expect and welcome close contact. The premise is simple; a group of fools is on the loose, wandering through the sacred space of the church. Their pastor is gravely ill; unable to preside over the preparations necessary for holy services. This disheveled congregation is consequently in chaos, desperate for intimate contact with the healing ritual of communion, and at the same time sensing their world may be coming to an end.
The audience is finally settled; yet at once we hear the pastor has died. Chaos erupts once again, seasoned with panic; yet the blind fool (Thea Garlid) with the stick who serves, at times, as the accidental master of ceremonies, insists on prayer; insists that the service must go on. And it does; the concept of worship acts as a center of gravity that inexorably and repeatedly draws the fools back towards its unerring center. Each time, it begins with a riveting vocal performance of unearthly beauty; these men and women may be fools in life, but they are geniuses in song. Over and over again, the cast manages to re–center the ceremony and gather the frayed threads of dissipated attention, illogic, and irrational stupidity together into a single piece of fabric. Each time this transformation takes place, we move from a sense of humor, skating at the very edge of the thin ice of mockery and heresy, directly into an extraordinary worship made all the more important because of the way it is drawn from idiocy, at once taking away its power and transcending it.
These moments of transformation give the performance great emotional power; and each time one takes place, the audience is encouraged to agree that we are all the fools in this play, and only God is sacred.
The ceremony follows, loosely, the standard communion of the Episcopal and Catholic church; a powerful form to begin with, and even — paradoxically —more powerful when it is disrupted in this manner. We are offered the readings; a confused and illiterate gospel, still (defying any possible or reasonable expectation) conveying the compassion of Christ without ever referring to it properly; and the sermon, equally unraveled, yet equally extraordinary. Each one of these is somehow wrong, as the troupe’s leader, Matt Mitler, points out, pathetically slapping himself on the head with the repeated ejaculation, “sorry, sorry.” The counterpoint of his rejection of all the errors — it is wrong, that is not the sermon; he is very bad, very bad — is echoed by a hunchback crone (Yvonne Brecht) who repeatedly says little more than NO!
All of the wrongness— and the entire performance is, in a way, constructed of nothing but wrongness (with the exception of the glorious singing) — is somehow irrevocably right. We begin to understand this in great depth as Mr. Mitler explains the relationship between the fools and their now deceased Pastor. By this time, the audience is so thoroughly drawn in to the storyline — minimal and fractured as it is — that we are all believers. It would take a hard man or woman not to cry at this point.
This is not your average scripted piece of theater; it relies on wordless events and absurdities which, in any other context, might be deemed offensive. The heart of the performance is firmly seated in the pose, the gesture, and the organically inexplicable nature of the present moment; and we find ourselves there with it, in all of the joy and anguish that it evokes.
This is a performance it is well worth going out of your way to see, if you can find it anywhere near you.
The cast for this performance of Fools Mass was:
Megan Bones, Yvonne Brecht, Ryan Castalia, Will Hand, Felicity Doyle, Thea Garlid,
Golan, Jesse Hathaway, Su Hendrickson, Polina Ionina, and Matt Mitler
Costumes are by Karen Hatt