Menocchio is a Challenging Play
Also see Richard's review of The Food Chain
Berkeley Repertory Theatre is currently presenting the world premiere of Lillian Groag’s cosmically charged comedy Menocchio at its Thrust Stage Theatre. The comedy/drama has some of the Bay Area’s finest comic actors, including Ken Ruta, Charles Dean and Dan Haitt.
Ms. Groag has written a challenging play that is part burlesque, part commedia dell'arte, part opera and a little of the Marx Brothers thrown in for good measure - all of this in the first act of this intellectual journey. The second act gets into the more serious business of the forces of religious conviction vs. academic freedom in 16th century Venice.
Menocchio is based on the true story of a northern Italian miller named Domenico Scandella who wanted to think for himself rather than follow the dogma of the Council of Trent by the Catholic Church. The Italian Inquisition tried and found him guilty of being a heretic. He was imprisoned and eventually burned at the stake by the Venetian government.
The play opens on a comic note with the first line spoken by Menocchio (Charles Dean) to his wife (Jeri Lynn Cohen) being, “Do you really believe that piece of dough is the body of Christ?” You know with that blasphemy, there is big trouble ahead for the miller. Menocchio for some apparent reason can read books that are now coming out from the printing presses. Many of the books, like “The Decameron” and books on travel adventures and Copernicus are read by this smart and well informed intellectual. Unfortunately for the miller, these books are on the church's condemned list. Also, he tells everyone, including his lazy minded cousin Bastian (Dan Haitt), that he believes the earth was created by a “big bang” rather then God. He even confronts his childhood friend, a parish priest (Peter Van Norden) who tells the miller to keep quiet or the Inquisition will hear about his heretic tendencies. Needless to say, the Chief Inquisitor (Ken Ruta) is informed and the second act follows the trial of the poor miller. Most of that consists of much too long lectures of religious dogma vs. intellectual freedom, preachy and not very compelling.
Menocchio's first act is highly charged with vigorous acting on the part of Charles Dean and Jeri Lynn Cohen. However, the opening monologue by the frustrated wife is entirely too long as she raves and rants about her husband who is always seeking knowledge that is dangerous for him. Dean also acts at a fever pitch as he bounds about the stage constantly wondering about the universe. It is almost operatic in nature and his voice is always at a high pitch.
The second act is very good due to Ken Rita’s brilliant interpretation of the Inquisitor. His manner of handling the questions is careful and conscientious but he never loses sight of his goal. His ideologues are well informed according to Catholic dogma, and he is very convincing in his argument for the purity of intellectual conventionality. The second act also contains the comic highlight of this interesting play. The Inquisitor has ordered a series of the village citizens to testify against Menocchio and they are all played by Dan Haitt. This fine actor plays a cantankerous old bearded man, a poultry farmer who thinks he is there for “poultry impurity,” a one-eyed tavern keeper and finally the lazy cousin Bastian. This is all done on a moment to moment basis with the simplest of props. This is a brilliant comic tour de force
Peter Van Norden plays the academically enticing parish priest in a richly complex performance. Robert Sicular plays several parts, including a superficial nobleman and a representative of the modern state power (a role which needs more development since it revolves around the matter of church vs. state).
Menocchio's set is on a giant astrolabe. There are various circles that are intersecting and bisecting plus Renaissance and scientific images being projected on the back of the set. There is a spinning dial on the floor that forces the actors to keep stepping up and over. The set pulls down in the second act to become the courtroom for the Inquisitor. Costumes by Beaver Bauer are wonderfully colorful and ingeniously exaggerated period costumes of the era.
Lillian Groag, who not only wrote the play but directed it as well, had a challenge in creating the Venetian world of the 16th Century and the intellectual ferment of the century. However, she has not convinced me that this little miller could be so unaware of the danger of his ideas. We really feel no sympathy for his character. Some of the scenes seem very preachy. It is a good play but not a persuasive one.
Menocchio runs through December 22 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre Trust Stage, 2025 Addison St. Berkeley, Ca. For tickets call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.