Comparing the buttoned-up experience of seeing a play to going to church is an old insult, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Or at least that’s what you might think while watching the dynamic modern-dress revival of T. S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” which takes place in the pews, inside illuminated confessional booths and under the cross of a grand church in Brooklyn that has seen better days.
The verse play about the final month of Thomas Becket (Godfrey L. Simmons Jr.), the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose power struggle with Henry II, the king of England, led to his assassination in 1170, could easily come off as a dated costume drama. Moving mechanically from one elegant monologue to another, the play is organized like a series of arguments. Becket is visited by four tempters, who, in this production presented by the Church of St. Joseph and the nonprofit Brooklyn Arts HQ, arrive in business suits and, standing on a tall platform, are rolled down the church’s long center aisle.
Comparing the buttoned-up experience of seeing a play to going to church is an old insult, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Or at least that’s what you might think while watching the dynamic modern-dress revival of T. S. Eliot‘s “Murder in the Cathedral,” which takes place in the pews, inside illuminated confessional booths and under the cross of a grand church in Brooklyn that has seen better days.
The director, Alec Duffy, smartly uses his vast, upside-down boat-shaped space lighted by golden candle flames to create an atmosphere that is as authentic as it is otherworldly. What stands out most is the grand scale of the nearly 100-year-old Church of St. Joseph – no theater has ceilings this high – and the echoing boom of the actors’ voices gives the poetry a lift. While speaking clearly and with purpose, the fine cast underplays its passion, wisely, because the acoustics turn a whisper into a baritone-voiced song. A choir of 15 women adds lush vocals accompanied by a score (including organ) by Dave Malloy, who composed music for “Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage,” a recently performed thrashing rock version of the epic poem.
It’s the murder itself that might be the most effective use of the stage. A commotion at the church’s entrance makes the audience members turn their heads to see the piercing rays of flashlights outside the windows in the dark night. After Becket insists that he will not hide in a house of worship, the doors open, and four killers race down the aisle. It’s a moment of action that you just can’t imitate on an ordinary proscenium stage. By jumping from one side of the church to the other, the production has the odd effect of seeming far away in distance but near in sound. The almost uncanny quality captures the sense of standing in awe of something ineffably vast but that still speaks to you. In that way, the space really serves, and perhaps deepens, the play.
“Murder in the Cathedral” continues through Oct. 2 at the Church of St. Joseph, 856 Pacific Street, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn; ________________________________________________________________________________________