nytheatre.com review by Kimberly Wadsworth
April 13, 2007
Jerusalem Syndrome, according to the program notes for Lear deBessonet's thought-provoking work transFigures, is a rare type of religious mania unique to visitors to Jerusalem or the Holy Land. Those affected may not even come from a deeply religious background, but for some reason, after a couple days touring Jerusalem, they start feeling anxious or agitated, they tell their traveling companions they want to explore the city alone, and may start obsessively taking baths or showers to "purify" themselves—and if left unchecked, they may end up making a robe out of the hotel linens and setting off on a pilgrimage to sites such as the Western Wall or the Dome of the Rock to sing hymns or preach sermons to other befuddled visitors. Within a couple weeks, their zealotry fades and sufferers revert completely back to normal.
In transFigures, deBessonet uses the syndrome as a springboard for exploring the theme of religious zealotry in general. Using dance and movement as well as dramatization, the play introduces us to a collection of characters—including an upper-class couple visiting Jerusalem on a package tour, a psychologist who theorizes a neurological basis for "out of body" experiences [this is based on a field called neurotheology], a fundamentalist Christian secretary who writes letters of support to an imprisoned abortion clinic bomber, and a young man whose religious fervor is so deep that he spends hours trying to decide which shoe God wants him to put on first. In lesser hands this could have been a huge mess, but deBessonet expertly weaves all the disparate threads together, producing a work that raises questions and inspires contemplation about the nature of faith itself, and the fine line between deep belief and dangerous obsession.
One of the most striking sequences isn't even about Jerusalem Syndrome. Towards the middle of the play, Juliana Francis takes on the role of Joan of Arc, addressing the audience in a monologue drawn from the actual Joan of Arc's trial transcripts. Her story is contrasted with that of John Salvi (T. Ryder Smith, in a chilling performance), a pro-life activist who was convicted of two counts of murder in 1994 after a shooting rampage at two Massachusetts abortion clinics. The sequence jumps back and forth between Joan and Salvi's stories—with dialogue taken from Joan's actual inquisition, and from a transcript of Salvi's actual mental competence evaluation. We are drawn into realizing just how much these two had in common—both believed they were being directed by God's word, both may have committed murder in God's name, both believed that they were otherwise completely sane, both were nevertheless convicted—which leads to the question of why one of these people is regarded as a monster, and the other as a saint.
All the elements of the production are designed to flow from one sequence to the next—Jenny Sawyers's set is a series of simple furniture and screens that the cast continually disassembles and reassembles to become everything from an office cubicle to an airline terminal to shields carried by Joan of Arc's soldiers. Andrea Haenggi's choreography allows the cast to seamlessly shift from being commuters on a subway to characters in a religious vision. deBessonet's staging also puts the cast out into the house at several points, even bringing characters onstage from the back of the theater; it's easy to be swept away by the play, as it is with a religious experience.
The play raises many questions: Is religious mania a neurological disease? Does a lack of religious fervor and mysticism deprive someone of a certain kind of vitality and passion? Would a benevolent Deity require followers to commit acts that put them in harm's way? Wisely, though, the play answers none, leaving the audience to—dare I say—meditate upon the answers themselves.