Theater

Pentecost: Art as a Moral Matter

Jonathan Shue and Amanda Hilson break barriers in Pentecost.
Jonathan Shue and Amanda Hilson break barriers in Pentecost. Photo by Andrew Tat
It is easy to get lost in David Edgar’s Pentecost. There are many characters, many intrigues, many discussions and, more trenchantly, many motives. Yet in its complexity, the play is quite simple. It is about the political uses of language. The thought is small but the implications are great. In a world of multiculturalism, for instance, battles over the literary and artistic canon are fought every week by some special interest or another. Given such a state of things in the Euro-American culture at large, it is hard not to accept the premise of George Orwell: who controls the language controls thought.

Language is certainly one of the major themes of David Edgar’s play, but a further theme develops through the evening. If control of language means control of thought, it is equally sensible that he who controls images controls identity. In a culture that tends to treat art as trivially as the contemporary United States, this might seem an overstatement. To Latin American or Asian cultures, and certainly to the post-Velvet Revolution Eastern Europeans, the matter of art is deadly serious. It was deadly serious in the Czech Republic where post-Communist democracy began with a playwright in the presidential office and definitely serious before that when being an artist was often a sure ticket to Siberia. Where America and Europe often treat art as commodity or mere “self-expression,” the meaning of art runs quite a bit deeper in this play.

As David Edgar himself wrote, “The original idea was to create a play where the central character was the set, the central character here is a painting. You see, there are complicated reactions to art.” How true. In Pentecost, the reactions are complicated but boil down to a single matter: Everyone wants to control the work of art and put it to their own purpose. Set in a mythical “Our Country” that borders Germany and Turkey, where the main language is Bulgarian and their old language an off-rhyme for Glagolitic, the synecdoche should be obvious: the battle over an artwork is a battle for the identity of Central and Eastern Europe. The very same battle was fought less politely in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and what some would call Kurdistan just before the time of Mr. Edgar’s 1994 play. One might argue that battle is still being fought.

For a University of Washington School of Drama production, director Andrew McGinn has chosen an ambitious play. Fortunately he also has an ambitious cast. The casting is quite impeccable. The ethnic and social diversity of student actors often poses an interesting task in casting appropriately, in a way to use all of their talents to their best without seeming corny or outright false. Here, since ethnic, religious and social diversity is very much the heart of this play, the cast and drama match each other excellently. Furthermore, Mr. McGinn coaxes some powerful performances out of his young cast.

It took me a bit to suss out Darius Mousavi’s approach to the role of obnoxious art historian Leo Katz, but once I waited beyond his initial mannerist style, I found it to be quite novel, a very intriguing way to anchor the other actors around him. The only American character on stage, he is also the most expressive and passionate, despite the fact he is the most remote from the play’s contextual events. The irony is well played.

I was also impressed with Jonathan Shue’s take on the British art historian. His energy is well-focused and he adds numerous subtle yet effective touches of physicality. Like Britain itself he is invited into a conflict much deeper than he can possibly suspect and one in which he is clearly, like his country, out of his depth.

Much of the play depends upon the role Gabriela Pecs, the discoverer of the ancient painting. Fortunately, Amanda Hilson gives a performance as Mrs. Pecs that is truly exceptional. The role here is daunting: she is onstage virtually the entire play and must alternate serve as the pioneer, the protector, the conscience, the reactionary, and the Three Marys as well. That she maintains such incredible focus and energy throughout the play and never loses herself is remarkable. Her handling of the language is good but her handling of subtext is even better. Every line is genuine and truthful, and she clearly understands her part in the evening. I have seen Ms. Hilson many times over the past couple of years in less impressive turns, but this performance is virtually faultless. Her growth as an actress over the past year alone has been quite phenomenal. I look forward to seeing her many times in the future.

There are other fine performances in this piece as well. It is nice to see Rebecca Shepherd again after quite some time, and Tara Velan turns a rather small role into a sensitive and moving drama–a study of the Bosnian conflict in miniature, without ever seeming glib. Brian Culbertson gets all the good lines in his small role as the minster for restoration–or conservation–of culture and is quite fun to watch. It was also very heartening for me to see Yesenia Iglesias step out of her sometimes-too-glamorous habits and get herself grimy and dirty to perform the role of the Sri Lankan dancer. I do like her as an actress, and I am delighted to see her stretch out whenever possible.

High praise, too, goes to Mr. McGinn for holding the evening together with his direction. This is far from an easy play to produce. It takes courage even to attempt it. I daresay that no professional theater in Seattle would even touch this play, not for moral reasons but for purely pecuniary ones. Their excuses would run: it is too long, there are too many characters, the audience has to work too hard, etc. By ignoring the naysayers, Mr. McGinn has done the community a favor they may not even appreciate. This is the favor that student drama can do not only for its practitioners but also for the laity: by producing works that would never make an appearance anywhere else, the student drama can help to expand the range of theater in its community. I appreciate Mr. McGinn reminding audiences that such things are not only still possible, but desirable.

Through March 3 // Jones Playhouse at University of Washington, 4045 University Way NE, Seattle // Tickets $10-18

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net