Volume II, Issue II Summer 2003

Too much ambition, not enough delivery

Review by Jim Trageser

Written by David Edgar
Directed by Mark Lamos

Old Globe Theatre
The Old Globe
Balboa Park, San Diego, Calif.
Through July 5


Those literary and dramatic works that have most successfully addressed life's Big Issues have been those that take the most modest aim. Camus didn't set out to explain the Western soul, just to try to figure out what might drive a normal man to commit murder. Hemingway, Dickens, Arthur Miller – each created works of monumental impact because they took aim at a small slice of the human heart and in capturing it so perfectly helped us imagine the larger whole.

In "Pentecost," playwright David Edgar takes a different approach – he tries to nail the wholeness of humanity in one sitting.

And in so doing, he fails at his attempts to impart wisdom or insight.

Pentecost For starters, there's this: The play is far too long to hold an audience's attention, with far too many passages that stay beyond their welcome. The three hours-plus of "Pentecost" could easily be reduced to a more comfortable two without losing any of the play's message – in fact, by better holding the audience's attention, it would allow Edgar to more effectively whap his audience upside the head with all his many political messages.

And his story rambles all over the place thematically: the role of art in assessing a culture's value, the way in which cultures are defined by their own self-image, immigration policy, the legitimacy of terror as a political weapon.

A small sliver of any of those ought to provide more than enough clay for any playwright to work with, but Edgar tackles them all – at least superficially.

And that's the main problem: His story idea – the discovery of a potentially important early Renaissance painting hidden beneath subsequent paintings in an abandoned East European church – is imaginative and fertile. But you can't cover as much philosophical and political ground as Edgar does in "Pentecost" and do any of them justice.

The cast is strong, and work together to try to breathe some humanity into the caricatures they're handed. Michael Santo as the British art professor turns in perhaps the fullest creation, a man of many shades of gray. Elijah Alexander's portrayal of the American art historian has touches of Jeff Goldblum's mathematician in "Jurassic Park" about it – bringing fiery passion, yet lots of room for self-doubt.

The rest of the characters are so poorly drawn that there's little for their actors to do other than hang as much flesh on them as possible. Odd, too, that it's the two Western characters who are partially filled out – with the Eastern European and Third World characters little more than scenery inserted to make political points.

Mark Lamos' direction also leaves something to be desired. The thick accents he has everyone but the American speaking in make following the dialogue difficult – you shouldn't have to expend conscious effort to understand what the actors are saying in order to follow the story.

The combination of Michael Yeargan's set, York Kennedy's lighting and Paul Peterson's sound system creates a truly effective sensory experience. It's like really being in an old church and seeing a very old painting being brought back to life.

That's not nearly enough to salvage the production, of course, and "Pentecost" ultimately comes up short because Edgar's ambition far outstrips his ability to deliver.

Jim Trageser is a writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif.

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