To evoke “the Cardinals” in non-sports circles is to conjure up that particular group of senior officials of the Catholic Church who dress in scarlet cassocks and assorted funny hats. These instantly recognizable, physically anonymous and morally homogenous advisors to the Pope are the primary agents of Vatican-style smoke and mirrors: in other words, not the most progressive thinkers in Christendom.
So, a play by the same name, where three of those red-robed priests depict the entire story of Christianity from Genesis to the present, promises to be a loaded gun, or at least some unapologetic brainwashing. In the case of The Cardinals, by the British company, Stan’s Cafe, it’s more of a rubber pistol. The piece, in Under the Radar at The Public Theater, is a savagely silly deconstruction of Catholic iconography and dogma. Seen in the wake of the religiously motivated terrorist attacks in France last week, it also read in New York as an uncannily timely statement on the freedoms of worship and expression.
This quirky show could as easily have been called “The Complete and Unabridged History of Christianity in 90 minutes.” As it begins, three Cardinals in cassocks and galeros enter with haughty bearings and regal gazes. They look as out of touch with their surroundings – heaps of props, bits of sets, the skeleton of a puppet theater and two large racks of costumes – as a clown might at St. Peter’s. They are here to present their Bible show to the faithful but the puppets have been delayed in transit. However, the show must go on (and the good word spread): soon those red sleeves are rolled up and the three clerics are acting with missionary zeal in a series of pantomimed tableaux.
The telescopic effect of their life-size heads appearing as Adam and Eve (the latter in a long red wig and a come-hither gaze) in a miniature Garden of Eden or one priest’s size eleven feet walking on the water to calm a tiny boat bearing the Apostles deflates the inherent power of these iconographic images as quickly as the Cardinals can stage them. Stan’s Cafe has clearly spent some hours sourcing Medieval and Renaissance art: there is the Madonna and Child, the Last Supper, Judas’ hanging, Christ on the cross, Doubting Thomas, Paul’s conversion, the Ascension, and more, much as they appear on the walls of the Metropolitan or the Louvre. Not even the tableau of the Crucifixion escapes derision as the Cardinals improvise to find scraps of costume and the right poses and facial expressions to capture the moment. We see these images as made by men and therefore subject to human agendas rather than as the divinely inspired messages they were once thought to be.
This deceptively simple show doesn’t satisfy itself with parodying Christian doctrine, however; the stories of Abraham, Moses, David and Joshua also serve, when the pantomime jumps to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as commentaries on the enduring nature of the symbols and intolerance defining the Middle East. Moreover, when the Cardinals aren’t appearing as Noah or the Angel Gabriel, an even more biting backstage story unfolds that links the pantomime with the current state of cohabitation between the three major monotheisms. Namely, those Cardinals have to hold their own against the show’s stage manager, who happens to be a Muslim woman.
At first, she is their obedient and hard-working assistant, changing out sets and locating props faster than you can say “allahu akbar.” But when it’s time to take Jesus off the cross, she is nowhere to be found. Without revealing why, it becomes clear in multiple ways that her faith won’t be swayed by the story unfolding in the puppet theater, which, incidentally, demands she also perform as various Muslim women slaughtered at the hands of the Crusaders. When the pantomime ends with an image of Israeli tanks and a suicide bomber, the narrative has become her own.
Where do the Cardinals stand on that? A final, scathing tableau says it all: Heaven is for the goodly men of the Church; for the rest of us, it’s Hell on earth. The ingenious physical theater of Stan’s Cafe is a reminder, just days after the Charlie Hebdo killings, that now more than ever in the history of mankind and its religions, we need the critical lens of humor to challenge the pulpit and the bimah and the minbar and all their reactionaries and set their stories straight.