Periodically punctuating the constant, background pounding of drums and the waves of a gathered mob’s protest chants are the grand and majestic chimes of St. Paul’s world-famous bells. The glory of the Church and the concerns of the people coincide in chorus as all is heard from the other side of a formal conference room’s closed windows. It is on the very spot of St. Paul’s Cross -- once an open-air pulpit where the common people of London gathered and witnessed many of the historical events of the Reformation, sometimes resulting in riots – where Occupy London continues its day-in, day-out 2011 demonstrations as Steve Water’s play, Temple, opens.
For some of those connected with St. Paul’s that we will meet in the next ninety-five minutes, this mounting anger being voiced over the banking world’s practices and the growing economic gaps between the Top 1% and everyone else is a sacred cause totally appropriate to occur on St. Paul’s Cathedral grounds. For others, this litter-filled tent city is an abomination on the holy grounds that is no longer to be tolerated – not to mention that the Church is losing $22K daily due to lost tourist revenue.
As presented in its American premiere by Aurora Theatre Company, Temple is a gripping, spell-bounding, and thought-provoking piece of live theatre that takes a recent event still fresh in its audiences’ minds – especially given the Bay Area’s likened often contentious and even riotous experiences in Oakland and San Francisco – and presents different perspectives in order to raise a number difficult questions. What is the purpose of the Church if not to open its doors to those who wish to worship? But what is also the Church’s role in supporting, even hosting, voices of objection to injustices? What does it mean to lead the flock, and who exactly is the flock? When does a church become too much like a corporation, and what is the boundary between what is good for the Church and good for the State (in this case, the City of London)?
Under the astute, steady-paced, yet microscopic-in-emotional-detail direction of Tom Ross, a stellar cast steps forward to raise but never quite answer these questions as well as the ultimate question that comes up again and again: What would Jesus do? Where would Jesus be – in His Church or with His people?
Promoted from being Bishop of the rather remote Isle of Man, the present Dean and highest reverend of the 1400-year-old St. Paul’s Cathedral – the same man who cancelled all services two weeks ago due to the Occupy protests outside – is now set to reopen the Cathedral and to lead services again this very day, with the protests still roaring outside. However, Mr. Dean (as he is called by everyone) is also being asked to sign onto London’s decision to clear the camps – something discussed the evening before in a Church board meeting.
The decision of that meeting has led his Canon Chancellor – widely well-known and well-loved, maybe more so than the more reserved Dean himself -- to resign in protest. (The Canon has also chosen to Tweet – and re-Tweet -- to the world his own resignation before a formal announcement can be made at an upcoming press announcement.)
In addition, the Virger (responsible for logistical details of worship among other things) is completely unhappy (“May I register my disgust ... ?”) that the Cathedral was ever closed and is too on the verge of resigning because she sees the Dean as not having shown enough “mettle” in this whole situation. A rookie public relations woman is ecstatically eager to help (Lizzie, the so-called, “P.A.”) the Dean craft his messages. A City Lawyer is pushing him to announce immediately the Church’s (and especially his) buy-in to the clearing of the tent city. The Bishop of London wants this all to be over and the Dean to ensure everyone is happy.
And the Dean is simply looking for wisdom from somewhere – be it from the young P.A. or from God -- whoever will advise him first and surest.
As the Dean, Paul Whitworth seems consumed by an inner sense of built-in caution in the very way he moves and the nervous looks of his spectacled eyes. When speaking to others, his is a voice that is often trying but not quite succeeding to sound in the surety and authority one expects from a grand pulpit. When he sinks into a window sill with his head lowered into his cupped hands, we know that this is a man who shudders at the decision he feels called upon to make, and we begin to understand he is also foreseeing another decision he will feel compelled to make about his own career. Mr. Whitworth provides a masterful portrayal of a man of God who is being forced to be a corporate-like leader.
|Paul Whitworth & Mike Ryan|
Mike Ryan is the hot-blooded, determined, sometimes fiery Canon Chancellor – a man clearly in a love/hate relationship with his Dean and yet one who ultimately shows that he holds respect and admiration for the position the Dean fills and is in. His Canon Chancellor clearly sides with the Prophets of old more than with the Priests -- with those willing to howl in the streets against the injustices around them versus hiding away within the sanctuary of the church and its formal services, roles, and ordinances. He embodies the modern prophet as he Tweets his messages and as he pits himself with the fury and even the bite of a bulldog, standing up against the more staid and cautious Dean and all the Church’s growing corporate-like ways.
|Sharon Lockwood & Paul Whitworth|
As Virger, Sharon Lockwood too has a stubbornness of position and belief that comes across in the manner she holds her bodily stance firm in its foundation and often grim-faced in its countenance. She shows a boldness that betrays her short stature and a willingness to call out her superior for what she sees as his weakness of position.
|Syvia Burboeck & Paul Whitworth|
With her near frenetic pace in and out of the room; mile-a-minute talking; and hands full of nervous, energy-filled movements (not to mention curtsied bows each time she encounters the Bishop), Sylvia Burboeck comes close to stealing the show and certainly offers both heart and humor to an otherwise often tense and serious set of surroundings. Leontyne Mbele-Mbong is an embodiment of a somewhat sleazy lawyer of the city as she walks about bending her body constantly in elastic fashion, with hands constantly moving and head bobbing and twisting in almost weird manners – all the time making such statements like, “Has London lost its marbles, its nerve, or both? The whole world wants to know!”
In his royal purple shirt, priestly collar, and extremely large gold chain and cross draped around the neck, J. Michael Flynn’s Bishop of London is certainly king-like as he prances about trying to let the Dean know that he (and the world) is watching and evaluating the Cathedral leader’s every move. His statements are often as pronouncements, with every consonant fired as if from a cannon.
|Paul Whitworth, Sylvia Burboeck, Sharon Lockwood, Jack Wittmayer & Grady Walsh|
An inspired touch of Mr. Waters’ script and Mr. Ross’ direction is the late entrance of two cherubic chorister boys, played by youngsters Jack Wittmayer and Grady Walsh. Their angel-like voices sing a simple anthem that helps those gathered in the conference room to rise above their entrenched differences, personal resolutions, and difficult decisions to remember their mutual love and respect of each other and of their God – even if questions raised among them have not been answered consensually.
Richard Olmsted has created a magnificent conference room with its large, paned windows overlooking toward an unseen mob. The lighting of Jeff Rowlings highlights both the grey skies of outdoor London as well as the wonderful richness of the paneled, inside walls. Chris Houston’s sound design of bells, drums, and muffled crowd noises is an important character of this play -- almost as necessary to the story and its meaning as any of the individual actors before us (not to mention the humorously but telling interruptions of cell phones that convey an entirely clever message all onto themselves). The costumes of Callie Floor define Church hierarchy as well as individual personality peculiarities.
In the end, this Aurora Theatre Company production of Temple is just enough unsettling and uneasy, just enough question-raising without answer-giving, and just enough fascinating into a behind-the-scenes of incidents within our recent memory to be a real winner. That is particularly true when the production is also so overall superbly directed, produced, and acted.
Rating: 5 E
Temple continues through May 14, 2017 at Aurora Theatre Company’s Main Stage, 2018 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at 510-843-4822.
Photos Credit: David Allen