Murder in the Cathedral
nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
September 18, 2010
In a sense, the Church of St. Joseph's production of Murder In The Cathedral is a return to form: T.S. Eliot's original production took place in the Chapel at Canterbury. But most modern productions take a more conventional approach. It's a story that's made for a church, though—Eliot's tale concerns the martyrdom of St. Thomas a Becket, former chancellor to King Henry II of England, who appointed Becket Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1100s in a bid to gain political control over the church. But Becket took his religious role far more seriously, eventually surrendering the role of chancellor and prompting an irate Henry to have Becket killed for treason.
Going site-specific in this instance wasn't even director Alec Duffy's idea, but rather a longtime goal of St. Joseph's Pastor, Msgr. Kieran Harrington. When Father Harrington was assigned to the century-old Church of St. Joseph in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights, he took one look at the site and knew it was time.
St. Joseph's is indeed an inspiring setting (especially if you are or ever have been Catholic—this is the first time I've ever genuflected before taking my seat at a play), and Duffy's staging makes fine use of the space, sending the cast up and down aisles, perching them in pulpits, even seating them in the pews. He even lets three of the "Tempters"—three evil spirits who visit Thomas Becket in the first act to persuade him back into Henry's good graces—make grand entrances by wheeling them up the center aisle on huge dolly platforms. One tense scene, in which Becket (Godfrey L. Simmons) is confronted by a fourth visitor (Jordan Coughtry) trying to tempt him to pursue martyrdom for the sake of personal fame, felt nearly cinematic, as the oily Coughtry weaves his way around the pillars dotting the church, circling ever closer to his prey. It's a great scene for both actors as well, who have an eerie chemistry.
Still, presenting a play in a church is not without its problems. I couldn't help pitying sound designer Daniel Iglesia, who must have had many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to cope with the echoey acoustics of a church. I especially had trouble with the choir—music director Gene Baker has assembled a fine all-female vocal choir and makes good use of the church's organ, but it was at times just plain too hard to hear what the choir was singing. However, the fact that I could make out anything at all is a testament to Iglesia's work.
Director Duffy seems to also have gotten a bit too carried away with dramatic staging ideas at one point—one pivotal scene, in which Becket is confronted by a group of knights demanding his obedience to Henry, takes place in the church's entryway. It makes perfect sense in context, and Iglesia has dutifully miked the cast so we can hear what's going on, but it still forces the audience to try to watch the action by peering through a window 50 yards away. (This really is a good cast, Duffy—let us see them!)
I found myself thinking once or twice during the show that "they really ought to film this"—a testament, I think, to how to capture the quality of the show while cutting out the unavoidable production problems. Until St. Joseph's announces that plan, though, we have this production—which is still worth it.