By Marcina Zaccaria
The Cardinals, presented during The Under the Radar Festival at The Public Theater, provides breathtaking stagecraft and provocative performances.
The show begins with the elder Cardinal, dressed in a red robe, taking center stage and screaming out. The other actors present and perform in an innovative set that looks like a puppet theater. Outside of the puppet stage with red curtains, there are racks of clothing items and set pieces. Actors slide in and out of the puppet stage during the show and whirl around in the wings, throwing on head pieces, and grabbing the items from the side tables. The performances that ensue are sometimes light, sometimes serious and dignified.
In many ways, it’s a feat of scale. The scenography is sophisticated and whimsical. On the smaller stage, the issues seem more acute. Though there is spoken text in the production, the strength of the show comes from the tableaus provided with stick figures and miniature set pieces. From a microphone off stage left, a performer with a booming voice discusses the soul. The selected text is spare, but there is plenty of great music used during sequences that tell the stories of Adam and Eve and Exodus. The production also travels back in time to 1095 – the Crusades. Though sometimes exact, The Cardinals is never unnecessarily dogmatic.
Using recognizable images, belief structures can be questioned. Issues of morality can be brought into play. The players are not so much puppets, as deeply feeling, living people able to make their statement. The actors playing Cardinals embrace a deeply empathetic style of acting, drawing the audience into their world. It is effective. The three men are pillars of the community – thinkers who know and who are glad to present these religious stories. A Muslim female, who adds sound and light cues and brings on set pieces, rounds out this cast from the UK.
It’s great to see iconography and faith play such an important role in the theater. In fact, layering in images from many religions makes the production successful. It’s an interesting choice for this year’s UTR Festival. The 2015 festival brings world-class theater, live music, and spirited talkbacks to The Public Theater. The 11th Annual Under the Radar Festival has included work by Daniel Fish, Mariano Pensotti, Reggie Watts, and Taylor Mac. While some of the shows seem mostly light-hearted, The Cardinals has a sense of both levity and gravity.
At the end of The Cardinals, the characters change their red robes for contemporary dress. Tall buildings take the place of the religious images that flooded the stage. As miniature tanks overtake a City, the scene becomes increasingly crowded. What was refreshing becomes alarming. Points of light become an explosion, a shocking change from the beatific scenes presented earlier. The change provides both a surprise and an alarm, a reminder that everything can be destroyed in an instant.
The Cardinals is running until Jan. 18th at The Public Theater.