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Stage Review: CMU's 'Pentecost' inspires

Thursday, October 24, 2002

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Wow! When American theater prefers family drama to the larger political canvas, Carnegie Mellon is bent on exposing us (and its young pros) to something larger. Witness last year -- Beaumarchais' "The Marriage of Figaro" and, more to the current point, Peter Barnes' "Red Noses," both huge plays with a political point of view. And CMU's Chosky Theater is capable of epic staging.


WHERE: Chosky Theater, Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland.

WHEN: 7:30 tonight, 8 p.m. tomorrow, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday.

TICKETS: $12-$14; 412-268-2407.


This week's expansive achievement -- and you miss it at peril to your sense of theatrical possibility, since no one else is doing this kind of thing except, on a smaller scale, Playhouse Rep -- is David Edgar's 1994 "Pentecost." It could have been written yesterday.

Imagine a dusty 13th-century Balkan church, crossroads of history, used by Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims, as a stable by Napoleon, prison under the Nazis, museum ... you name it. An art curator in the newly post-Communist state has discovered a hidden fresco -- one very like a Giotto that is considered the starting point of the Renaissance. But rather than a copy, she argues persuasively that it predates Giotto -- which would rewrite the history of Western art and thought.

She enlists an English ally and all hell breaks out. Is it that old? Should it be moved? Who owns the church? International interests get involved, each with contributing experts (most notably, an American Jew); the country is eager to join the West, so stakes are high; a hearing is held.

And then the play does a dramatic U-turn: A van crashes into the church, filled with a dozen stateless refugees -- Bosnian, Kurd, Palestinian, Sri Lankan, Azerbaijani, you name it. A large debate about art, humanity, history, religion and capitalism becomes even bigger as genocide joins the fray.

In Act 1, Mladen Kiselov's very dramatic, one might even say florid, direction allows characters to react like thunderclaps to what they should already know. Indeed, the whole play is no more behaviorally probable than socialist realism -- which is to say, its truths are conventionalized. Still, socialist realism is a valuable corrective to capitalist sentimentality.

Edgar whipsaws us back and forth on his predetermined dialectical pathway. Best known here for his script for the RSC's "Nicholas Nickleby," he is an earnest socialist playwright with a million ideas, most of which he wants to include. The drama of believable conflict suffers. But as theatrical 3-D lecture on historical causation and catastrophe, "Pentecost" is gripping.

Most magically, deep into Act 2 (the play comes in just under three hours), Edgar turns his ragtag refugees and their "Western" captives into a community that awaits its final catastrophe by telling stories. In this moment, all the political issues turn into individual human beings -- and then the play has one more tragic U-turn to take.

The cast of 24 handles huge challenges with remarkable maturity, including languages I wouldn't even know how to name. Bravos all around. For all its dramatic irritation, "Pentecost" is as contemporary as Sunday's Irish vote on "Europe" or the anti-art outrages of the Taliban.

Christopher Rawson can be reached at crawson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1666.

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