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'The Last Confession' considers the questionable death of a pope

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The Last Confession

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What would a world without women be like? The Vatican as portrayed by Roger Crane in his "The Last Confession" shows a world without sexual tensions, but dryly reduced to political maneuvering for power. While the rest of the world was entering the drugged excitement of the debauchery that surrounded the jet set disco era, in 1978 the Vatican was replacing Pope Paul VI with Pope John Paul I and would just over a month later, be electing another new pope for a three-pope year. Yet did you know that there was a question about Pope John Paul I's cause of death?

Crane drops us in with an angry, ailing man, Cardinal Giovanni Benelli (David Suchet) who is speaking with his confessor (Philip Craig). What would a cardinal have to confess? No sex crimes or buried bodies, although with recent news about the children dug up in and around a septic tank, that can't be far from the minds of the audience.

Benelli was the deputy of the Secretariat of State in the Roman Curia, serving under the Cardinal Secretary of State Amleto Giovanni Cicognani who was at that time, 1967, too old to perform all his duties. But Cicognani wasn't the only member of the Vatican who was getting too old. Pope Paul VI was failing and in poor health. His death didn't come as a surprise.

At the time, the Vatican was in financial trouble. The economic crisis was two-fold. The cost of papal and Vatican pomp had increased. Vatican Council reforms increased the cost of administering the church. Pope Paul had hired a financial consultant with Mafia ties, Michele Sindona, and by that last year of Paul's time as pope, Sindona as in an American prison. His replacement, Roberto Calvi is also portrayed as shady.

Pope Paul was elected by the liberal faction of the Church, but he was an indecisive man. Still conservative factions in the Church wanted a more conservative man who would reverse the more liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

In this environment of men grasping for power or desperately attempting to keep what they have, Benelli decides he wants to be the power behind the throne. Benelli was considered a likely candidate for the next pope, but instead he decides to play pope-maker.

Pope John Paul I (17 October 1912 to 28 September 1978) was born Albino Luciani and died soon after becoming the pope, serving only 33 days. Portrayed by Richard O'Callaghan, Pope John Paul I isn't a puppet, but a man with definite ideas of how to bring the Vatican down to the people. He didn't want to be enthroned or carried. He wanted to meet people. He wanted to walk among the people and talk to the gardeners and other service people of the Vatican. He doesn't trust Bishop Paul Marcinkus (Stuart Milligan) with the Vatican Bank. More dangerously, he wanted to dismiss some of the powerful and established figures at the Vatican.

In Crane's play, Benelli is also angered that he can't control this simple man and he refuses to ask to be the Secretary of State and leaves to sulk in Florence. When he agrees to return, it is too late. The death of Pope John Paul I means none of his reforms, none of his staff changes are implemented.

The Vatican creaks not forward, but backward and Benelli is part of that. His desertion of John Paul I was the deadly sin of pride. Then, it's the deadly since of avarice or ambition. Benelli doesn't push for an autopsy and full investigation of the pope's death in hopes that he might become pope himself.

That, of course, didn't happen. John Paul's successor Pope Saint John Paul II served from 16 October 1978 until 2 April 2005. That was almost 27 years. Born Karol Jozef Wojtyla, he was the first non-Italian pope since the Dutch Pope Adrian VI (1522-1523).

Now, guilt-ridden and near death, Benelli has written a confession that details his failure and the possibility that a progressive pope was murdered by his enemies.

The real Giovanni Benelli (12 May 1921 - 26 October 1982) died of a sudden from a heart attack at age 61 while he was the Cardinal Archbishop of Florence.

Agatha Christie fans might remember David Suchet as Hercules Poirot. Suchet's Poirot was essentially a eunuch. He had no romance. He didn't flirt. He was fussy and he was a bit of a control freak. Yet Suchet's Benelli is a man who has risen to the top levels of a closed and secretive world. There's a spark of angry ambition that turns to bitterness when unrealized.

Richard O'Callaghan's Albino Luciani is the opposite--a modest man, a kindly and humble man. One wants to believe that he might have stopped many of the scandals that were revealed under the reign of his successor with greater candor and practicality, leaving us with the regretful consideration of what might have been.

Crane script slowly sets up the situation in the first act and even the second act feels overlong. Director Jonathan Church might have tightened up the pace and yet this 2-hour 30-minute play (with intermission) forces one to feel the almost glacial pace of the Vatican. William Dudley's set design uses tall black panels that look like black iron fences. The pieces are moved to present rows of doors or enclosed squares. You can see through the black, but the feeling isn't one of transparency--moral or ethical. Instead you get the feeling of claustrophobia, like cages and begin to question who is caging whom.

You won't doubt that in these corridors of power, power has corrupted the men inside. The world of this Vatican is alienated from the people it is supposed to serve and everything is done in service of those who have managed to gained a position within the Roman Curia.

"The Last Confession" is part of a world tour that started in Toronto and will head Down Under to Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. The production originally opened in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto (19 April 2014).

"The Last Confession" continues until 6 July at the Ahmanson.

“The Last Confession” is produced by Paul Elliott, Duncan C. Weldon and Liza McLean. It premiered at the Chichester Festival Theatre in April 2007 and then transferred to London‟s West End in June of the same year.

Tickets for “The Last Confession” are available by calling (213) 972-4400, visiting www.CenterTheateGroup.org, or in person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre. Tickets range from $20-105 (ticket prices subject to change).

The Ahmanson Theatre is located at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012. Presented as part of the Mark Taper Forum subscription season, the production is also a bonus option to Ahmanson season ticket holders.

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