And Let the Skies Fall!
Also see Sharon's recent review of Ten Unknowns
Take three non-fictional characters, one of whom is seemingly unrelated to the others, add in a strong cast, a couple songs, a lengthy dance sequence, some strong imagery, and some staging that ventures into surrealism and what do you get? Emilie Beck's And Let The Skies Fall!, a new play that has a lot to say but seems to get bogged down in how to say it.
This much is true: Marianne Paget was a sociologist who made a study of the way a traditional dialogue between doctor and patient can lead to miscommunication and misdiagnosis. Ironically, Paget herself died as the result of a cancer that was misdiagnosed. And Let The Skies Fall! begins with a dramatization of a doctor/patient dialogue recorded by Paget. We see the dialogue unfold; then it is commented on by a panel of experts, including an actress playing Paget herself, who point out the key errors in communication. Even the doctor and patient editorialize on their conversation, as though they can now look back on what they said and see the communication problems for what they were. This is solid playwriting, well-performed. (Indeed, Beck had previously adapted one of Paget's articles for the stage. It is not clear how much of this opening scene was simply taken from Beck's earlier play, but it certainly makes one interested in seeing the original work.) It is frightening to watch how easily the doctor brushes aside the patient's concerns by telling her what they both want to hear (that she is in good health), and how quickly he fits each of her complaints into the mold of the faulty diagnosis he has already made.
This much is also true: Mother Teresa, the Catholic nun who worked with the sick and poor in India, died in 1997. Since that time, the Pope has waived the five-year waiting period for considering canonization, and has already recognized her posthumous healing of a sick woman as a miracle, thus setting the stage for Mother Teresa's beatification (the step prior to sainthood) this October. Christopher Hitchens is a British journalist with the reputation of always questioning the common beliefs. Hitchens is an outspoken critic of Mother Teresa, arguing that she was an unbending religious fundamentalist who does not deserve our praise. The second act of And Let The Skies Fall! is dominated by a dream sequence in which Mother Teresa is on trial for sainthood. Hitchens is one of many witnesses who speak against her, all of whom raise the question of whether Mother Teresa erred by not giving the poor and sick of Calcutta the food and medical care they needed, but rather the deathbed conversions she believed they needed. Mother Teresa repeatedly answers all charges against her with, "I only did what the people wanted," and the disturbing similarity to Paget's doctor/patient dialogue is left for the audience to infer. This is thought-provoking, potentially incendiary, material.
Why, then, does it not work? Largely because of the format writer/director Beck has chosen to tell her story. Mother Teresa's trial is inserted into Paget's end-of-life story as a dream Paget is having. Perhaps because it is a dream, the trial has surrealistic elements: the judge has a spoon and spatula instead of a gavel; when the attorneys' objections are overruled, they are ordered to waltz around the courtroom; and some witnesses are directed to be "flamboyant." The prosecuting attorney always speaks in rhyme - but it isn't a Johnnie Cochran sort of rhyme. Instead, he seems like Jim Carrey playing "The Riddler," prancing and posing all around the stage as he bestows upon us his rhyming arguments. The purpose of these theatrics isn't quite clear. If Beck is trying to also make a comment about the inanity of the justice system, this silliness is at cross-purposes to the very serious point she is making about Mother Teresa.
Moreover, it isn't just Paget's dream that gets Beck's bizarre treatment; weirdness pervades the entire play. Mother Teresa is introduced with her speech upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize. It is followed by a dance sequence with several other nuns, some people laying on the floor, and the actress playing Paget doing half-handsprings across the stage. The purpose is unclear. Hitchens is introduced with a great monologue, but during his introduction, two trench coated men stand behind him making increasingly wild hand signals at each other. This upstaging doesn't do anything other than steal attention away from Hitchens. At one point, Paget speaks of her cancer, but rather than just address the audience, she is bending herself into a series of choreographed poses, which are mirrored by three other actresses. The poses have no correlation to the words she is speaking, and the audience is again confused.
The unusual staging isn't all bad. There is one scene in which Paget and other cancer patients all recount dreams of death, but rather than sitting in a support group actually talking with each other, they are instead in their individual realities - yet each one knits or crochets from a separate ball of yarn of the same color. While it is difficult to capture the precise meaning of the knitting, it is an undeniably powerful image, particularly during the moments when the knitting stops. But, as a whole, Beck's play has too many bizarre scenes to really get its point across. It is a valiant effort, but it needs a clearer, simpler format to get the tale told.
And Let The Skies Fall! plays at the Circle Theatre at the El Portal in North Hollywood, Fridays and Saturdays through April 26. For tickets and information, see www.andlettheskiesfall.com.
Girlie Girl Productions, Elizabeth Owen, Producer, presents And Let The Skies Fall! Written and Directed by Emilie Beck. Scenic and Lighting Design by Justin Townsend; Original Music and Sound Design by Jack Arky; Production Stage Manager Alison Cardoso; Costume Design by Michele Barrett.