Ill Papa: The Vatican Knows . . .

Giulia Bisinella & Ian Campbell Dunn

Giulia Bisinella & Ian Campbell Dunn

Mark Ethan Toporek, Timothy Roselle, Debbie Klaar

Mark Ethan Toporek, Timothy Roselle, Debbie Klaar


by: JK Clarke


The story of The Vatican Knows is shocking. It’s not shocking because a young pregnant woman was kidnapped and murdered for political reasons, but instead because the whole affair, and every person involved, was so remarkably boneheaded.

Although loosely based on both the disappearance, in 1983, of a 15 year old Vatican City girl, as well as the 1981 assassination attempt of Pope John Paul II, The Vatican Knows is a fanciful conjuring (loosely based on a 2012 article in the NY Times) of a conspiratorial relationship between the two events, including some explosive hypotheses. Young Emma (Giulia Bisinella), whose Polish father is an employee of the Vatican, is impregnated by her lover, Gustav (Ian Campbell Dunn), one of the Vatican’s Swiss Guards. Emma is conflicted by her pregnancy: she’s aware that it is a sin, but she uses it as an opportunity to confide in and bond with the Holy Father (Mark Ethan Toporek), whom she also believes is her biological father. The Pope does little to disabuse her of this notion and blesses her pregnancy in a rather roundabout way after she promises she intends to marry the baby’s father. Meanwhile, other scandal rocking the papacy is brought to the Pope’s attention, including accusations of priests molesting young boys (interestingly, it is Cardinal Ratzinger—later to become Pope Benedict XVI—who brings these accusations to the attention of Pope John Paul II). It is indeed a difficult time to be Pope.

Matters are complicated even further by an nefarious and sudden attempt on the pope’s life, and then Emma’s abduction, which we soon learn has been facilitated by her lover, the Swiss Guard. Thinking he has an opportunity to partake in a share of the ransom money, Gustav has revealed the “secret” of Emma’s supposed parentage, and the kidnappers want to use the information to discredit the Pope and undermine the authority of the Vatican and its influence on the western world.

To say that playwright Mario Fratti’s script is convoluted would be a gross understatement. For a play about kidnapping and mayhem not to be riveting and focused is a lost opportunity. There is enough meat in that portion of the story alone to carry a play, but unfortunately here it is complicated with unnecessary material: first with an opening scene about child molestation that is never referred back to or linked to the rest of the story (and includes a rather uncomfortable description by one of the victims that is more pornographic than clinical); and then a confrontation scene between Emma and her parents that does nothing to further the story. The rather dramatic ending is, consequently, sudden and conducted without any proper build up. What’s even more frustrating is a motley cast of characters who rival the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight: the completely delusional and hypocritical Emma; the seemingly powerless and indecisive Pope; Emma’s impotent parents who have no control over her whatsoever; her Swiss Guard boyfriend, who has more in common with a midwestern high school football player than a member of a noble and elite guard; and finally a pair of the most bumbling kidnappers to appear on stage in quite some time.

The Vatican Knows is clearly an attempt to spotlight corruption within the Church and the banality of fanaticism—and lord knows there is ample material to illustrate such a point—but the opportunity to do so in a concise, meaningful and entertaining fashion was lost this time around.

The Vatican Knows (About the Kidnapping of That Young Woman). Directed by Stephan Morrow. Through October 20 at Theater For the New City (155 First Avenue @ East 9th Street).

*Photos Jonathan Slaff