Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 1999
Everyone is catching millennium fever, and playwright John Guare is no exception. The coming of the new decade, century, and millennium causes some people to sit down and reflect over their own lives. It made Guare look back over the lives of his fictional characters - in this case Ronnie Shaughnessy from his 1971 play "The House of Blue Leaves". The earlier play was about the day the Pope came to New York. This play is about New York coming to the Pope.
"Chaucer In Rome" finds Ronnie (Jerry Hardin), or just plain Ron as he is listed in the program, closing in on his "golden years" with his ditsy wife Dolo (Polly Holliday) at his side travelling to Rome in the Holy Year. The couple has won a three-day trip to Rome during the Jubilee Holy Year in a church raffle, which is fortuitous because their only child Peter (Bruce Norris) is at the American Academy in Rome on a two-year fellowship. Unfortunately, Peter does not want to see them.
But that is not where this show begins. It begins with Peter and Sarah (Kali Rocha) at the side of their friend Matt (B.D. Wong) a painter on the verge of greatness who is also on fellowship at the Academy. The paint Matt uses on his canvases contains arsenic and tar and has given him skin cancer. We find the three of them at the hospital as Matt learns that the surgery to remove the cancer was a success, but if he wants to stay healthy he can never use that kind of paint again. Matt views the loss of his artistic medium as tantamount to an amputation, a killing off of what makes him exist. He and Peter enter in to a bet that Peter can come up with a new way for him to express himself as an artist.
Nothing works until Peter's parents show up at the Academy and the three young people decide to dress Matt up as a Catholic priest in a fake confessional and videotape Ron and Dolo's confessions. The premise of this Jubilee Holy Year being that you can have all your sins absolved if you visit the four great basilicas in Rome, make your confession and say a series of prayers.
This one idea creates profound changes in the lives of all the characters, and that is really what Guare is writing about here - the power of an idea. The idea of complete absolution, the idea that makes art, the idea of murder. Ideas change lives and alter the course of history. Hitler had an idea.
Guare is also wrestling with the ghosts of his own ideas. At the close of "The House of Blue Leaves" Artie Shaughnessy strangles his wife, Ron's mother, in their apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. "Chaucer In Rome" picks up on the idea of that murder and seeks absolution for it while Ron is propelled forward into his own idea of murdering Dolo in the same way and in the same place as his father married his mother. Both Ron and Dolo accept it as a given that this will happen. Dolo is so convinced that it will be her lot to be killed at her husband's hand that she creates grevious sins for herself - sins to ask forgiveness for, sins to be killed for.
The idea of videotaping people's confessions saves Matt's life. It kills Ron and Dolo. It breaks Peter's world apart completely.
Alexander Dodge has designed a fascinating two level set for this show, and Nicholas Martin has directed his talented cast well. I have named them all except Lee Wilkof who plays a surgeon, a half-Jewish priest, and a smarmy talk show host was aplomb. This is an ensemble piece and the actors all play off and with each other beautifully.
And yet "Chaucer In Rome" will not be everybody's cup of tea. The question of confession and absolution was what split the church into Catholic and Protestant back in the Reformation. It will be offensive to Catholics and Protestants still today. Guare can find fun in even the most serious of subjects - murder, cancer, absolution - and that will be off-putting to some. And the link to "House of Blue Leaves", which was so fascinating to an old theatre buff like me, will whizz right over the heads of many. I have written before about plays that require homework to understand or enjoy fully. This is certainly one of them, and it is not a fair to the majority of theatre goers.
"Chaucer In Rome" runs through August 8 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs 90 minutes with no intermission. Call the box office at 413-597-3400.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999