Dualities and continua are explored with rare intelligence in this densely packed one-act by gifted young playwright Nate Rufus Edelman.
Political versus personal, religious versus spiritual, chaste versus sated, man versus animal, truth versus lie, along with almost every other duality one can conceive of, are explored with such deftness in The Belle of Belfast, one is both struck dumb and inspired.
The central story of a burgeoning love between a 17 year-old girl and her priest -- a love conceived of war -- a war that is political between Irelands and personal of conscience -- is embedded in layers of philosophical questions, with the central question arguably Is there a hierarchy of sin, and if so, what lies on it?
This Irish-Catholic historical play written by a 29 year-old Jewish New Yorker opens and ends in a confessional perhaps because it is in these small wooden boxes where so many of life’s grand issues are unearthed.
The confessional is the symbol of both judgment and forgiveness, confinement and liberation, and it is in these small wooden boxes where it is determined what will happen once you’re interred in a small wooden box.
The confessional is a box meant to remind us of all the other boxes: The Church is a box. The country is a box. The conscience is a box.
The play’s opening confession is light and extremely witty, which lures the audience into the play’s tone and themes. The closing confession is contrastingly heartfelt, which brings the audience to tears. Such bookends demonstrate the playwright’s ability to hold in the same mighty hand light and dark, calloused and vulnerable.
The staging is cinematic, with wall-size projections, tree branches and rain, but also Beckett-minimalist, with few set pieces and pantomimed movements, suggesting another duality: reality versus illusion.
The playwright has said that he trimmed this taut text down from two-act, and while ordinarily such a feat should be applauded because succinctness is so difficult to accomplish, some might prefer, here, to see the two-act version so as to live a little longer with these characters.
The acting is superb. Sarah Gise as Anne is beyond moving. Gise effortlessly captures her character’s flippancy wearing it as a ribald veil over her large but injured heart.
Caitlin Gallogly as Clara is chilling, especially when she sings with such spirit an Irish ballad.
Carol Locatell and Billy Meleady are both perfect, each mixing well bawdiness with old-school “good.”
And Daniel Blinkoff as the priest is divine.
Forgive the pun!
He so purely captures the tug between body and spirit that in rectories must be remarkably common.
The direction by Claudia Weill and design by Hana S. Kim (set), Pablo Santiago (lights), Joseph Slawinski (sound), Dianne Graebner (costumes) and Katherine Hunt (props) serve as adoring ode to playwright Edelman. The richness and simplicity are in harmonious balance, delivering justice to the writer’s words, giving rich life to his paradox-laden world.
The Ensemble Studio Theater’s The Belle of Belfast plays at the Atwater Village Theatre (in rep with Year of the Rabbit ) through October 28, 2012.