Sapientia : Uncomfortable Comedy?

Know many medieval theatre pieces? OK, those of you who study this stuff don’t get to answer. For the rest of us, let’s face it. Hroswitha of Gandersheim’s 10th century plays aren’t all that familiar. She probably got her most recent boost when feminist art revolutionaries, the Guerrilla Girls on Tour, issued a challenge in 2006 offering an award for the first professional theatre group to perform a work by the medieval playwright instead of another Greek tragedy.

Well, after watching the excellent production of Sapientia adapted by Scapegoat Carnivale Theatre, it’s understandable why Hroswitha, despite being the first female playwright as well as the first playwright to produce works since Antiquity (as some say), has slipped from popular consciousness. Sapientia is a brutal look at an eponymous Christian noblewoman and her three daughters who resist the emperor Hadrian’s demands to worship the pagan gods. This refusal under extreme torture and the ensuing martyrdom is the bulk of the play’s narrative. While Hroswitha may have intended her play to rival the popularity of ancient Roman comic playwright Terence (“I am human and consider nothing human foreign to me”), Sapientia is not all that relatable. Sapientia’s devotion to the Christian god over the violent abuse and execution of her children is rather alien in the secularized world of today.

The masterful team behind this production take Hroswitha’s blunt narrative and work magic to make it compelling. First off, Lynn Kozak’s literal translation and Mia van Leeuwen’s conceptual adaption and direction, represent the best of the best. Joseph Shragge took on the responsibility of adaption and produced the final script. The words selected, the intent of every scene, and the overall conception of the production is perfectly crafted art. The sound, lighting, choice of kitchen objects and setting seem so perfect that it seems as if these effortless. One realizes later how careful this selection is.

The decision to perform the show as object theatre, a form of puppetry in which everyday objects serve as the characters, is a boldly creative move that pays off. The performers — Paul Van Dyck (Antiochus), Alexander Petrachuk (the Daughters), Robert Leveroos (Hadrian), and Alison Darcy (Sapientia) — bring the puppets to life with their bodies, voices, and expressions. An Italian moka pot serves as self-preening Hadrian, echoing the tyranny of Mussolini. The shiny silver surface of this familiar “appliance” contrasts well with the LED flashlight that serves as Antiochus. Van Dyck and Leveroos add much comedy through their odd pairing, such as when the torturer grovels before his emperor. Noblewoman Sapientia shows her two faces, one a mirror and the other, a covered back, and she flips round depending on who she addresses. It’s a great way to contrast her openness to God with her disgust with worldly matters. Her three daughters (Faith, Hope, and Charity) are similar in their devotion to Christ and willingness to die, but Petrachuk differentiates through personality and voice.

Special mention needs to be made of the set and props, a kitchen counter with a shelf containing some other goods for cooking in the background. Not only does this setting work well for the story and its action, but the space of a kitchen and everyday implements used echo the traditional woman’s sphere for a good chunk of western history. The home. The kitchen. It draws attention to the fact that the play is not only by a woman whose accomplishments stood out for her day, but also in the sense that the play pits the four meekest and weakest people (a mother and her three daughters) against to the strongest (the Emperor). Admittedly, my favorites are the pagan gods, who, without revealing too much, can best be described as flashy and kitschy.

Nonetheless, the play is what it is. The characters are fundamentally simple, serving as didactic allegories. Hroswitha wants her audience to adopt faith, hope, and charity as qualities that no amount of pleading or abuse will destroy in a good Christian. As characters, no one struggles with their beliefs about who they are or how they are to behave, which got me thinking about what I value in drama today. There is never a point at which the narrative feels as if it could turn based on a different choice made, or even remorse for the ones that are. This is the appeal of a play like the Oedipus Rex — Oedipus is fated yet struggles against it. There are moments where he could act otherwise. In the Antigone, she questions her own decision making while led to the cave. Sapientia is like an animated version of hundreds of thousands of works of art that depict serene martyrs who hold the implements of suffering in their hands and await release from earthly matters to their welcome salvation in the kingdom of heaven. One can appreciate who the playwright is, admire what she accomplished, understand her intention, and even intellectually transport the message to people today who choose their ideals over all else… but it remains as flat and alien as images of early medieval saints whose oversized eyes turn heavenwards.

This leads to a few concerns that have nothing to do with the production. Though Sapientia is not exactly black comedy, there is humour. The actors generate much humour throughout. At the start of the show, it’s more than appropriate, even knowing what is to come. But laughing at torture isn’t especially funny. Watching three small girls suffer, even if they are allegories, even if they are teacups, even if their reactions to their suffering is ecstasy, even if their devotion and belief in their mission unshaken, is still hard. Through repetition and an increase in scale, torture  becomes funny. But not funny ha-ha. It’s an uncomfortable and misplaced funny. It’s the funny that accompanies disgust and despair.

Another primary concern is about Christianity, because ultimately this piece is meant to make more Christians, or help Christians in their faith. Christianity, especially the sort that evolves into Roman Catholicism, is not the most sympathetic of religions. After all, it’s hard to fully pity the devoted when it is that same devotion that has allowed the Catholic Church to shelter and forgive those in its own ranks who have engaged in acts of sexual misconduct including pedophilia. Historically, the Catholic Church gave permission to Europeans to enslave and forcibly convert millions. The celebration of a martyr who resists power strikes a discordant note of hypocrisy. Once the tortured, now Christians themselves are the torturers. But a play that celebrates religion, especially one that demands its followers die in the cause and aim to convert others if only by example, is not a welcome role model for those who resist tyranny in whatever form it takes.

Despite the fact that this show is so uncomfortable, it absolutely must be seen.  Production values, the acting, the recognition of a very unusual playwright are all meritorious in and of themselves. However, go into this one aware that while one might leave feeling intellectually stimulated, there is likely to be some cognitive dissonance in that enjoyment.

Sapientia is at the Mainline Theatre (3997 St Laurent) at 8 p.m. on Thursdays through Saturdays, and 2 p.m. on Sundays, until August 26th. $20/15. Several nights include talk backs. For tickets and information, click HERE.

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