Catholics and Protestants in Europe fought to a draw over three decades in the 17th Century that came to be called the Thirty Years War. That’s all you really need to know to appreciate Spies For the Pope, a drama of ideas in conflict now playing at the Theater for The New City.
The more you know, however, the more you’ll appreciate, sympathize with (and sometimes chuckle at) the failure of diplomacy to reconcile the antagonists. Everyone claims the mantle of Christianity for themselves, denounces the other religion as heretical or sinful, and stands ready to kill its adherents.
But they all agree there’s something brewing in Europe that threatens all of Christendom. Faith in the word of God as the final answer to everything—whether proclaimed by the Pope or written in English in the new “King James” bible—that faith is being challenged by simple facts derived from experimental science. (In Rome, we’re reminded, Galileo is on trial.)
Courtney Stennett as Princess Elizabeth
Enter the Catholic Giulio Cesare Vanini (Eric Loscheider), a Capuchin friar who is also a “philosopher”—what we would call a scientist. He truly believes in God, but also that miracles can be explained by natural causes. He and his acolyte, Brother Markus (Jordan Stidham), undertake a picaresque mission for Pope Paul V during which they will always be—rightly—suspected of spying.
In the opening photo, Vanini shows Markus why the earth revolving around the sun, and the sun revolving around the earth, are merely two ways of looking at the same thing.
In Prague, they are powerless to prevent the Continental war that will begin in Bohemia and seemingly never end. But there Vanini meets his counterpart, the “lady philosopher” Elizabeth (Courtney Stennett), daughter of the Protestant English King James. While they can never be intimate, their minds meld over recent discoveries in the natural sciences and the latest musical innovation: opera!
Four of the seven actors—Joseph J. Menino, Pat Dwyer, Brian Ott, and Daniel Yaiullo—play multiple roles, sometimes for irony (the Pope becomes the Archbishop of Canterbury). But insufficient makeup and wardrobe changes produce occasional confusion over who is now who.
Director Alexander Harrington moves the players up, down and around a multi-tiered set by Scenic Designer Jennifer Varbalow, with able assistance from Movement Specialist Caitlin Rigney and Fight Choreographer JaneAnne Halter.
Live action is smoothly integrated with shadow-projections by Daniel McKleinfeld and animation by Gabriel Frier. The costumes, by Anthony Paul-Cavaretta, deftly suggest the era, and everything is nicely illuminated by Lighting Designer Corey Goulden-Naitove. Shoutout to Michael Sirotta for arranging and producing a marvelous soundtrack of music from before and during the Renaissance, which is (thank you) specified in the program.
Suffice to say, Vanini’s attempt to bridge religion and science is no more successful than his attempt to get Catholics and Protestants to stop killing each other. But the playwright, Douglas Lackey, is a Professor of Philosophy at Baruch College, CUNY, who has written several other historical plays that he calls “comedies of ideas.” I’d like to see more of them.
Photos by Jonathan Slaff
Spies For the Pope
By Douglas Lackey, runs through November 26
Theater for The New City
155 First Avenue