Thursday, May 8, 2014


Daniel Kash, Jonathan Seinen, Alden Adair, Tony Nappo. Photo Cylla von Tiedemann 

Reviewed by James Karas

A God in Need of Help by Sean Dixon. What a marvelous play and what a terrific production by Tarragon Theatre. Go see it.

This is a brief list of what you will get if you see the play: a history lesson, a lecture on art appreciation, an intimation of the encounter of the classical world with Europe of the Renaissance, an indication of the great encounter between the Muslim world and the Christian West, allusions to the war between Catholicism and Protestantism and …I know I have missed a few things. And did I say a terrific night at the theatre that is stimulating, thought-provoking and entertaining in the best sense of the word?

Let’s concentrate on the last point. You have gone to the theatre and not the Art Gallery, after all.

The plot is fascinating. In 1606, four strong men are selected to carry The Brotherhood of the Rosary, a large painting by Albrecht Durer, from Venice to Prague. They are led by a mercenary Captain in the employ of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and the recipient of the painting.

When the play opens we see the Captain bound and gagged and the four carriers of the painting hooded in prison and about to be interrogated by a Cardinal Archbishop and a Venetian Magistrate.  A miracle is alleged to have occurred on the way to Prague: the Virgin Mary stepped out of the paining with the Baby Jesus in her arms!

Photo of the company by Cylla von Tiedemann

The action of the play moves back and forth seamlessly between the present interrogation of the five men and events that took place on the way through the Alps. Dixon weaves all the items listed above into his plot with extraordinary dexterity and achieves theatrical magic. If the play relied on interesting historical and artistic facts, it would be something that can be replaced by lecture or a book.

The strength of Dixon’s play is that it has characters that are distinct, interesting and develop, a plot that has Aristotelian virtues and a production that is able to capitalize on these assets.

The cast is outstanding. Jonathan Seinen plays Rafal, a 17-year old who is a magician, an alchemist, a bit of a charlatan but also a visionary, a man who reaches from the Renaissance to classical mythology and civilization. He is beaten, sodomized and mistreated but he never ceases to grab our attention.
Dolfin, played by Tony Napo, is a flamboyant actor, a naïve human being and a man who wants to survive.  Cocco, played by Daniel Cash, is a retired soldier, a realist who can be a brute and Marco (Alden Adair) a rough-and-ready oarmaker. The leader of the group is a Captain (Dmitry Chepovetsky), a mercenary who is capable of almost anything from the destruction of art to abusing the men, especially Rafal.

The description of the journey by the five men is controlled by Borromeo, Cardinal Archbishop of Milan (Greg Ellward). Dixon eschews the easy characterization of the Cardinal as a closed-minded, authoritarian cleric of the Inquisition and gives us a man who is relatively humane, considers all pints of view and tries to save the prisoners.

The power of the state is represented by Zen, a prosecutorial Magistrate for the Republic of Venice played as a heavy by John Cleland.

The set by Set and Costume Designer Camellia Koo is effective simplicity itself. There is a large copy of the painting at the back. When the men “carry” the panting over the Alps, they pick up only the frame and raise it over their heads. The Cardinal is seated in a chair on a ramp in the audience and much of the time we see his back only and hear his rational voice.

Richard Rose directs masterfully a production that harkens to the Chorus in Henry V and shows us that the Tarragon Theatre can indeed hold a vasty part of history and a bloody good night at the theatre.

Now for your history lesson: Who won The Battle of Lepanto?

A God in Need of Help by Sean Dixon runs from April 16 to May 25, 2014 at the Tarragon Theatre, 30 Bridgman Ave. Toronto, Ontario.

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