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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Edgardo Mine at the Guthrie entertains and discomforts

Edgardo Mine
Brian Murray
It's Bologna, 1852. A Jewish baby, Edgardo, burns with fever. The family's Catholic helper is certain he will die. Left alone with the child, the girl baptizes him so that he will not sizzle in hell, as all Jews must, but romp in heaven as a Christian baby. Her simple act brings misery to Edgardo's family, coalesces international resentment against Papal power, pits Enlightenment thinking against Catholic tradition, and reduces the Pope's temporal power to just the Vatican.

Papal law of the time forbids a Christian to be brought up by Jews or to live in a Jewish home. The Pope's guards kidnap the baptized child when he is six to bring him up as a Catholic in Rome, and the ensuing intersection of anti-Semitism, religious absolutism and the ties of family are ripe for theater. The Guthrie's compelling production of this true story does not disappoint. Directed by Mark Lamos, the production feels operatic in scale, with Ricardo Hernandez' tall set of tiered Corinthian columns and arches, Candice Donnelly's opulent costuming and Mimi Jordan Sherin's dramatic lighting.

But if you anticipate lofty philosophical and theological discussion, you could be disappointed. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) focuses Edgardo on the human dimensions of loss and fierce determination, arrogance and avuncular charm. His characters speak in contemporary idiom that in its here-today quality might disconcert Jewish playgoers. The acting is sharp and closely observed.

Brian Murray plays Pope Pius 1X, as he did in the play's premiere on the Hartford Stage, and brings exquisite touch to the role. His Pius appears almost bumbling, an older man, racist, ruthlessly Christian and certain of his infallibility; and yet he is wry and appealing. He arrives with great pomp in august robes and a jeweled helmet, part crown, part miter, to Robert Waldman's arrangement of sacred music; he's surrounded by pantalooned Swiss guards with halberds, cardinals with crosiers and deferential priests, his presence enormous. Seated on his throne, Pius removes the jeweled miter. The lighting drops to focus on him. Other players freeze and, as he pulls off his white kid gloves, he's just a man, telling the audience, disarmingly, that he likes his nick name, "Pio Nono - Pius Nine." "I am the greatest tourist attraction in Rome," he confides. It's unexpected and winning.

Pius takes a personal interest in Edgardo, who proves to be a bright and receptive child. Although the plot revolves around him, a child only appears on stage twice in fleeting glimpses. Instead, we see him being addressed, present in Pius' or his mother's eyes, but not literally present on stage. The device works well. Edgardo might be the catalyst for the action, but an appealing child on stage could distract from the intensity of the struggle for possession of this gifted boy.

The play pits the wits of Edgardo's mother, intelligent Marrianna Mortara, against devious Pius. Jennifer Regan convinces as Marianna in a role that shifts from shrill anxiety to steely determination. Marianna outgrows her ineffective husband, Momolo, played by Ron Menzel. Her letters to Jewish newspapers in Europe and the US ignite the greater Jewish community, and the outraged French send an ambassador to demand that Edgardo be returned to his family. Pius remains obdurate, even as his prelate, Cardinal Antonelli, points out that the Papal States depend upon French protection for their existence. Stephen D'Ambrose's slender Antonelli is pragmatic, urgent and deferential.

The rest of the cast feels bigger than it actually is, with Nancy Rodriguez, J.C. Cutler, Tyson Forbes and Sasha Andreev ably filling multiple roles.

Lamos' polished direction keeps the pace gliding forward as one scene melts into another with filmic smoothness, and Sherin's lighting indicates whether we are in the Pope's chambers in Rome, or in Bologna and the Mortara house. Sometimes both are on stage, light clearly defining each location. Reid Rejsa gives resonance to sound if the action is ceremonial, conjuring St. Peter's vast stone space, or his sound design materializes the clamor of nine children in the Mortara household.

Packed with the emotional foment of religious certainty and great power, misused, and its devastating affects on individual lives, the Guthrie's Edgardo resonates in our present times and makes for an evening of persuasive theater.

Edgardo Mine Guthrie Theater, proscenium stage. November 4 December 17, 2006. Thursdays - Saturdays 7:30 p.m., Sundays 7:00 p.m. Call for matinees on selected Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. Guthrie Theater, 818, South 2nd Street, Minneapolis. Tickets: $22- $52. Call 612-377-2224, TOLL FREE 877.44.STAGE. or www.guthrietheater.org.


Photo: T. Charles Erickson


- Elizabeth Weir



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