nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 1, 2007
The Storm Theatre concludes its ambitious and valuable "Karol Wojtyla Theatre Festival" with a presentation of Jeremiah, an early one-act play written by the man who would become Pope John Paul II. Director Peter Dobbins wisely provides a bit of context for contemporary audiences, in a program note and an added-on prologue that let us know that Wojtyla wrote Jeremiah in 1940 after the Nazis had conquered Poland and suppressed all dissent and most art; this play was written for a proposed underground nationalist theatre by the then 20-year-old stonecutter/budding playwright-actor, and never performed at that time. Wojtyla would go on to seminary and then the prominence we associate with him, but his unwavering faith and devotion to the precepts of Catholicism are already present in Jeremiah and they're part of why the play deserves a look even now.
The play itself is spare and simple—very much influenced by the style of Greek tragedy, with just a few actors and practically no onstage action. It takes place in Poland in the early 17th century, and tells the story of a priest called Peter Skarga (literally, "Peter the Accuser") who chided and warned the Polish government and people that their discord and lack of personal/national discipline would bring about the country's downfall. (His prophecies proved correct, in the long run.) In the play, we see him persuade a soldier called Hetman into battle against the Poles' enemies, even though both men realize that the battle will be futile. Wojtyla makes explicit parallels between Skarga and the prophet Jeremiah, and implicit ones with the people of then-contemporary Poland: the message of the play seems to be that the invasion was inevitable; but that it will bring about a resurgence of Polish authority through the defeat of the Nazis.
Dobbins has done an exemplary job of making the piece as stageworthy and compelling as possible. His choice of the excellent actor Dan Berkey in the central role of Peter Skarga is especially valuable; Berkey—potent, commanding, and impenetrably deep in this role—conveys the unshakable vision and faith of this man, while keeping him both interesting and accessible to the audience. The other main role, Hetman, is played with a strong and guileless nobility by Brian Farish. Robert Carroll, Nate Begle, and Joshua Dixon offer support in smaller roles, while Rebecca MacDougall and Daniela Mastropietro portray a pair of angels who summon Skarga to emulate Jeremiah and issue his prophecies about the fate of the King of Poland. Enrique Cruz DeJesus has provided some stylized choreography for the two angels to perform that helps us understand they are not simply mortal; Danielle Louise Schembre's costumes similarly evoke their special status.
Dobbins's fine work is bolstered by Ken Larson's abstract set of a church in ruins, Michael Abrams's expert lighting, and Scott O'Brien's moody sound design.
Jeremiah, perhaps the least dramatic of the plays Storm has shown us in this festival, is in some ways the most accessible and the most instructive: we see in it the spirit of a young man drawn to a power much larger than himself to try to explain the seemingly inexplicable and horrific events happening around him. The theatre turned out to be just one short segment of the journey eventually taken by Pope John Paul II, but the writings he left behind for us provide enormous insight into the shaping of his character and beliefs.