Religious themes are nothing new in theater; this is an art form, after all, that has boasted the likes of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell as product of such themes. At the Gene Frankel Theatre this past Easter Sunday, religion once again took center stage with a production of August Strindberg's To Damascus, Part I. The first of Strindberg's trilogy, On the Road to Damascus, is under the helm of the August Strindberg Repertory Theatre. The company, which holds a residency at the Frankel, was founded in commitment to keeping Strindberg's work alive through productions, particularly of his lesser-known plays.
Like all biblical fables, Damascus begins and ends at the same place: a lonely corner on the streets of Harlem in the early 1960s. Here, we meet our story's unlikely hero, only known as The Stranger (DeSean Stokes), an Amiri Baraka-like wandering writer figure. On the verge of a spiritual crossroad, he meets The Lady (Kersti Bryan), the wife of a childhood friend known as The Doctor (Victor Arnez), whom The Stranger had wronged in the past. Sent by her husband to lure the wanderer into their home, The Lady soon finds herself spellbound by the tortured writer and his ideals. They arrive at The Doctor's house shortly thereafter, only to have their host slip a rather unhealthy dose of LSD into The Stranger's drink, prompting horrific hallucinations. Subsequently, the young couple seek refuge in a cottage in the woods, where her mother (Victoria Blankenship) and grandfather (Allen Kennedy) reside. Distrustful of The Stranger their progeny has brought into their home, they pronounce a curse upon him. This ultimately drives him into madness, and he wakes up to find himself in what seems like a convent, only to later find out it was an asylum.
Throughout the play, each scene is punctuated with blackouts, perhaps in an effort to signify the different "stations" the youthful hero visits. Modeled after the station dramas of the Medieval era, Strindberg's expressionistic trilogy is rife with religious symbolism, both in its dialogue and characters. However, despite its updated time setting, the production seems to get lost in its own ambitions; it does not find a way to properly reconcile the play's religious themes with the tumult of 1960s America. After all, in the wake of the likes of James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, it is a time period that seems right for the story of an unnamed pilgrim of sorts in search of redemption and truth. Certain aspects of the production feel right, such as music from the period, which punctuate each scene's start and finish. Donna Miskend's projections of impressionistic images and Angelina Margolis' sets both effectively paint an image of the various stations the nameless Stranger and his mistress visit. All the elements are there, yet they do not coalesce into a singular cohesive vision, and this is the production's flaw.
The show's own redemption lay in its performers; Stokes makes a strong leading man, believable as a young thinker on the verge of madness and plays against leading lady Bryan well. The rest of the ensemble deliver equally memorable performances, particularly Blankenship and Arnez in their respective roles as The Mother and The Doctor. Still, despite the praise-worthy performances, it was not enough to prevent one to seek salvation elsewhere.
To Damascus is running until May 11 at the Gene Frankel Theatre (24 Bond Street between Bowery and Lafayette Street) onThursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 for general admission and $12 for seniors and students. For tickets, call 212-868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.