From the Ancient Romans, to the German Gothics, to the creators of Grand Guignol, theatre artists have long been experimenting with elements of the grotesque. Simply put, theatre of the grotesque is carnivalesque and tragicomic—a veritable mix of horror, ugliness, irreverence and dark humor. While Isaac Byrne's direction of Sara Florence Fellini's In Vestments has its grotesque aspirations, overall the production's textual and scenographic clutter make for a rather discombobulating experience. Eschewing simplicity for bricolage, In Vestments is a thorny (and sometimes fun) romp through stylistic purgatory.
Byrne creates a few pleasingly grotesque stage images and moments, which are In Vestments' greatest strengths. The sight of burly, pop-eyed Father Falke (Ted Wold) stomping around like a gargantuan child in double plaster arm casts contributes to the production's darkly humorous vein. The delightfully gruesome and sacrilegious living crucifix statue (Eric Soto as Joshua) will greatly entertain some audience members (and possibly offend some others). Pierre Marais' haunting French musical interludes as the devilish Jakomo are oddly beautiful and compelling, even though they contribute to the stylistic confusion of the production.
Though it has its compelling moments, In Vestments suffers from lack of artistic unity. From the outset, audience members are greeted by ghastly faceless nuns (played by Amy Higgs, Erika Phoebus, and Cait Murphy), who hand them small slips of paper outlining explicit directions to "keep a respectful distance between yourself and members of the opposite sex," and to avoid "lolligagging in aisles." This interactive touch foreshadows some kind of immersivity, as if one will be attending a Catholic mass. Yet the immersive design of the production stops here; while the production is technically "in the round," there is no further crossing of the fourth wall, and no more ambulatory or participatory elements. While In Vestments does present intersting details and moments, its gimmick-oriented myopia inhibits an overall stylistic and philosophical unity.
Another example of In Vestments' disjointedness is its transitional music, which alters between church organs, chilling chords, and angry contemporary songs. Many of these musical choices are called for directly in Fellini's play text, which is itself the source of the production's stylistic schizophrenia. Playing out over an unforgiving two and half hours, the play's numerous melodramatic narrative threads include heroin addiction, child molestation, suicide, church corruption, neglectful parents, poisoned wine, dismemberment, and plenty of good old fashioned Catholic guilt. In performance, the interior struggles of Father Nate (Adam Belvo), Father Yves (Samuel Adams) and Father James (Carl Danielsen) coax the viewer towards empathy, but the play switches gears before one can really settle into any genuine care for these characters. Fellini's intensity as Maeve is as unrelenting as her script: her screaming and breaking of objects lacks control, which created a slightly unsafe and affronting audience environment.
In Vestments comes close to a critique of organized religion, but its message is clouded by excessive and indulgent narratives of drug addiction, sexual and emotional abuse, corruption, and suicide. While the experimental spirit of the playwright and performers deserve recognition, In Vestments might benefit from a more controlled and deliberate execution.
In Vestments ran to May 30 at West Park Presbyterian Church (165 West 86th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus). For more information, visit www.infinitesighs.com.