Friday, September 21, 2007

"The Jeweler's Shop" On Stage

The Theophany Theater Company was recently in town to perform The Jeweler's Shop, a play written by Pope John Paul II when he was still Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow. The play explores love and marriage as experienced by three couples: one ends by a death, another by separation, and later the third begins with the betrothal of two children of these unions. All three couples visit a mysterious jeweler's shop whose magical rings and vatic instructions bracket these couples' experiences of engagement and marriage.

The Jeweler's Shop, I am told, is representative of the Polish nationalist movement which tried to preserve and extend Polish culture despite foreign domination. Originally meant for performance in small homes, the intimacy of the play can be adapted to larger venues only with difficulty. Theophany's performance did not transfer well. The actors were difficult to distinguish at a distance. Costumed in uniform black dress, their appearance evoked distracting comparisons to avant garde productions. Their delivery lacked significant dramatic energy, being over-reliant on the script and its author to carry the production.

The writing itself is often provocative. At times the imagery flourishes into self-interpretation. In one scene an affianced couple stands outside a shop, contemplating each other in the store window:
[the shop window] became, however, a mirror reflecting us both-Teresa and myself. Moreover, it was not an ordinary flat mirror, but a lens absorbing its object. We were not only reflected but absorbed.

A lover's gaze upon himself and his beloved suggests the iconic nature of holy matrimony, which segues into iconographic theology. Rarely has such interrelated symbolism so echoed off a stage.

The soliloquy has but a small place in American film or theater but it frequents The Jeweler's Shop. Indeed the soliloquies are so many that at times the characters seem to have talked themselves into isolation from one another. On occasion this serves dramatic purpose, as when an abandoned wife futiley seeks comfort in a crowded village street, but at other places attentive staging must channel the solitude which was too prominent in Theophany's performance.

The speeches themselves often turn into philosophical asides. Observing two immature lovers, the everyman Adam states:
love carries people away like an absolute, although it lacks absolute dimensions. But acting under an illusion, they do not try to connect that love with the Love that has such a dimension. They do not even feel the need, blinded as they are not so much by the force of their emotion as by lack of humility. They lack humility toward what love must be in its true essence. The more aware they are of it, the smaller the danger. Otherwise the danger is great: love will not stand the pressure of reality.

Poetic imagery is lacking, to say the least. How is it that a play can tolerate such analytical ventures?

I suspect the oppresive state of 1960s Poland is one reason. Communist suppression of unofficial cultural events required that distinguishable artistic goals be concentrated into the power of one work. Archbishop Karol Wojtyla lacked the time and the flexibility of the free artist to explain and expand upon his vision. The playwright must do the work of criticism because few others will.

The play's confluence of aesthetic goals also includes the moral. The specialization of American society shuns the combination of education and entertainment. Such a union suggests the brightly-colored monstrosities of children's television. But didacticism is not necessarily an artistic sin. It is certainly a failure when a work of art teaches us something shallow or something wrong, so it is good for moviegoers that Hollywood usually shuns the didactic in favor of pure entertainment. Didacticism is also a risky tactic when advancing something the audience would rather not want to learn. The market pressures for mass appeal cannot afford any resentful patrons.

The effort to teach goes awry worst when one teaches something badly, and here performances of The Jeweler's Shop risk the most danger. The play is inescapably foreign. Its design for the house theater, its numerous soliloquies, its dramatic choruses, and its philosophic interludes have little appeal to action-loving American audiences. There are even a few rhetorical clunkers, as when one Chorus begins to speak of a wedding:

"The occasion is most beautiful, it evokes so many associations. We are looking only at what is!"
One hopes this is a fault of the translator.(*)

As much as a fifth of the audience at Theophany's performance ducked out at intermission. While one can excuse the players or the playwright by blaming the average American's taste, I think it is instead a sign that The Jeweler's Shop is a play fit only for the more academic or more adulatory sectors of American Catholicism. Written to compete with the bland socialist realism and the quasi-rationalistic Communist ideologies of its age, it can hardly challenge today's multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that stirs appetites for the spectacle and the sarcastic one-liner.

There is great potential for some budding playwright to remix this play for an American audience, as Christopher West distilled the pope's Theology of the Body for ease of understanding. Such a writer must unite the contemplative self-reflection of Wojtyla to an accessible story with characters and style more common to American performances. This effort will require considerable talent, but without it the best points of The Jeweler's Shop will remain trapped in a diamond uncut for its setting.

* On second thought, this line would work well when whispered in a home setting.

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