nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
February 25, 2005
It was the title that initially drew me to reading David Edgar’s Pentecost several years ago. Derived from the Greek pentekostos, meaning fiftieth, and having a significance in Judaism first as an agricultural festival and then as the day Moses received the Ten Commandments (otherwise known as Shavuot), Pentecost is most familiar to me in its New Testament usage as the day on which the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ’s disciples, fifty days after the Crucifixion. Huddled in an upper room in Jerusalem, Jesus’s disciples were praying and fearing for their lives lest they meet a similarly gruesome fate when a great wind burst through the room and tongues of fire settled atop each of their heads. They began speaking in a seemingly endless variety of languages and, empowered to preach boldly the Word of the Lord, they converted three thousand and the Christian Church has ever since regarded Pentecost as its birthday.
Edgar’s use of this biblical/literary allusion as an organizing image is not immediately apparent. The first half of Pentecost is, as the author describes it, “a sort of whodunit (more accurately a whopaintedit)” and the second half “a sort of hostage thriller.” Set in 1994 in an abandoned church in an unnamed country near Hungary, the play begins with a recently discovered fresco that seems to date back to either just before or just after the beginning of the Italian renaissance, depending on how one interprets the evidence. The zeal with which curators, historians, cultural ministers, and the like take sides reveals the significance of this determination early on: if the fresco dates post-I.R., the finding would be a footnote, at best; if the fresco dates pre-I.R., however, it may relocate the beginning of the Italian renaissance to a region that Europe is less than eager to acknowledge as its own.
Before a definitive ruling can be made, the church is overrun by a band of Eastern European refugees (all of whom had been denied asylum at the country’s borders) who take hostage Gabriella Pecs (the art curator who initially discovered the fresco), Oliver Davenport (a British art historian who champions her find), and Leo Katz (an American art historian who is aggressively skeptical of it). Over the next 24 hours, global politics collide as the refugees—from Russia, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan, to name a few of the represented nations—spar with their hostages, discussing at length (in sometimes improbably eloquent and intimate ways) the commerce and commercialization of art, the culpability of citizens for the atrocious behavior (both contemporary and ancient) of their respective countries, and the dubious distinction between the persecutor and the persecuted. This culminates in a cross-cultural show-and-tell of jokes, stories, and myths, which in an essentially realistic play requires a suspension of disbelief, but is still undeniably moving.
The Barrow Group’s Seth Barrish captures all the available excitement in his taut staging of this New York premiere. The environment created by designers Markas Henry (sets) and Robert Cangemi (lighting) is convincing as an abandoned church, and the talented ensemble feels authentic in their technically challenging roles. Stephen Singer’s and Oksana Lada’s performances as Leo Katz and Gabriella Pecs, respectively, are the most vivid in my mind, followed closely by Marc Aden Gray (Oliver Davenport), Alysia Reiner (Yasmin, the Palestinian leader of the refugees), and Katrin Redfern (Toni Newsome, a hostaged British TV hostess).
From what I could tell, there is not a single spoken reference to any of the aforementioned biblical events. I think this is incredibly smart. The space between the title of the play (so rich with implications) and the play itself is exciting and dangerous, charging us to make our own connections. What I saw was a group of people—fragments of many combative countries with a seemingly endless variety of dialects— huddled together and fearing for their lives, when they are briefly empowered to communicate with one another, not on the authority of any God, nor for any imperialistic purpose, but because they understand the truth that is less self-evident than it sounds: despite our wicked and sullied histories, we’re all in this together.