Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Great White Way + Great White(-wearing) Pope = Wojtyla Festival

Last week, John Paul II would've marked his 87th birthday. Yet even in death, the late pontiff -- an actor and playwright in his younger days, and a poet almost to the end of his 27-year occupancy of Peter's chair -- keeps on finding new audiences in the most unexpected of places.

Sure, the Tonys might be the "purple rain" of Broadway, but the theatre's returned the compliment: Papa Wojtyla's gotten new on-stage buzz thanks to a monthlong festival featuring four of his plays.

It even made the NYPost:
“I don’t know if anyone has attempted this sort of festival before in New York City,” says Michelle Kafel, associate producer. “Who would ever imagine John Paul II off-Broadway?”

Peter Dobbins, the theater’s co-founder, did.

Dobbins found a translation of the pope’s plays in a Texas bookshop 20 years ago, and was taken with them while he was a young performer. “If you sat and read it in your room, you would think this was kind of deep and heady,” Dobbins says. “But when actors say it, it becomes a different experience, it becomes light and beautiful.”

The theater group - which has produced everything from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” to “Linnea,” a retelling of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” - had been talking about putting on the plays for years, but only recently secured the rights from Pope John Paul II’s translator Boleslaw Taborski. Taborski, via e-mail, says the pope actually wrote one other play, “David,” which has never been found....

The first of the two plays being staged this month, “The Jeweler’s Shop,” is a meditation on love and God, which involves six people: a joyous married couple, an estranged couple and a child from each of those relationships who are set to walk down the aisle.

“This is people giving glimpses into their personal life,” says Elizabeth Wirth, an actress in “Jeweler’s Shop.” The play is “giving voice to a lot of questions that we all have often, but don’t ask out loud: Is this the right person? Is this going to last?” The pope finished the play in 1960 when he was the [auxiliary] bishop of Krakow, and was inspired to write by his counseling sessions with parishioners, says Dobbins.

“Our God’s Brother,” the other play beginning Wednesday, written from 1940 to 1950, is based on a 19th-century Polish freedom fighter and artist named Adam “Brother Albert” Chmielowski, and focuses on his struggle between living the life of an artist and serving the poor and the oppressed. Dobbins says the play mirrors a similar quandary faced by the pope, who was ordained as a priest in 1946 and later canonized Chmielowski a saint.

The plays, which each run about an hour-and-a-half, are not without risk - they rely on the spoken word, rather than the flash of special effects. But the theater, which stresses its trying not to push any message or agenda, hopes the audience will give the pope’s work a chance.

“This is really about reflecting in, rather than being saturated on the outside,” says Wirth. “I have a lot more in common with these characters than I do with Spider-Man.”
The festival runs through 17 June.