We’re nearing the end of Tarragon Theatre‘s 2013/2014 season, and it appears we’ve also arrived at the final stage of its theme: love, loss, wine, and the gods. But that doesn’t mean the Tarragon, which has seen some major hits this year in Lungs, The Double, and The Ugly One, is phoning it in. Sean Dixon’s ambitious new script, A God in Need of Help, has produced not only one of the longer plays in the Tarragon season, but also easily the most dense and layered, mixing as it does historical fact and fiction with timeless issues of art, religion, and politics. Fortunately, that makes it the strongest mainstage show of the season thus far (we’ll see how Tarragon’s final show, The God That Comes, co-created by and featuring Hawksley Workman, performs in June).
A God in Need of Help is a period piece set in Venice in 1606. It opens in some kind of dungeon, where we find five men who’ve been arrested for failing to transport a painting—Durer’s Feast of the Rose Garlands—to an emperor in Prague. The group consists of four men, all of whom have won the “Strongest Men in Venice” competition, and their captain. One by one, they tell their interrogators—vengeful officer Zen and an inquisitive cardinal, Borromeo—the story of their failure. In the opening expository scene, Zen (John Cleland) and Borromeo (Greg Ellwand) introduce each of their captives by removing the bag from his head. We meet Marco (Alden Adair), a good-natured but dopey strongman; Dolfin (Tony Nappo), a heavily built actor; Cocco (Daniel Kash), a hardened soldier; Rafal (Jonathan Seinen), the runt of the crew with a few tricks up his billowy sleeves; and a thoroughly defeated Captain (Dmitry Chepovetsky). The scene has the stiff, stagey air of a stripped-down Stratford Festival show—but luckily, once the perfectly cast five prisoners get the spotlight, the story takes off.
Each man’s story of the failed trip to Prague is different; each reveals new layers of betrayal, political and religious loyalty, and sexuality—and explores the power of art to affect popular opinion. While the first act is relatively straightforward, in the second we see a heightening of the magical elements that then propel the story to its final twist. The journey to that point is an engrossing one—Adair, Kash, Chepovetsky, and Nappo (who was replaced with director Richard Rose for the first few performances after coming down with the flu) all excel here, and Dixon has somehow managed to create a cast of clowns who are multidimensional and able to carry on conversations about morality, religion, and the value of art. Only Seinen, who, along with Ellwand, has to do the heavy thematic lifting in act two, seems to be overpowered by Dixon’s text and ideas.
It’s also impressive that Dixon and director Richard Rose have given this story steeped in historical context a very contemporary application. While the finale might come off as a PSA for art preservation, it does make a convincing case for art’s ability to record and reflect popular thought—in this case, a change in religious beliefs. In this play—and in Camellia Koo’s bare set, a large frame carried by the characters that often creates several live portraits on stage—art not only depicts scenes of angels, saints, and politicians, but also documents the opinions and trials of the everyday people affected by those higher powers.