April 22, 2009

A Critical Mass

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In order to portray a hope-filled celebration of faith that doesn’t seem hopeless naïve, Bernstein’s Mass confronts the social upheavals and secular pluralism that have torn apart established beliefs. Now playing at the Schwartz Center through April 26, it is a deliberately unwieldy hybrid, intermingling diverse musical and theater traditions to interrogate each other. Originally commissioned for the inauguration of the Kennedy Center in 1971, the demands of its massive cast — which includes a chorus of over a hundred student singers as well as a children’s choir, dance troupe, pit orchestra and several soloists — have prevented it from being widely staged as it was conceived, as a “theater piece for singers, players, and dancers.”
Unlike either mainstream opera or American musical theater, however, the piece has little narrative. Instead, the work follows the structure of the Tridentine Mass, interrupted by secular songs that frame the occasion of the mass as a psychodrama depicting the celebrant’s crisis of faith. A young priest’s doubts about performing the liturgy induce a hallucinatory spectacle wherein his private demons manifest as competing factions of street urchins, false prophets and hedonistic punks.
The mélange of secular musical styles — bel canto aria, rock anthem, blues, showtunes, even a kazoo chorus — cross-pollinate with the liturgical plainsong, creating an impure synthesis that always feels on the verge of bursting at its seams. Yet, the struggle to contain and integrate the heterogeneous, unseemly hodgepodge of musical codes and modes, even if not always entirely successful, is the sonic analogue for our own sometimes failed struggle to navigate the cacophonous voices high and low, sacred and worldly, which cajole us with their all-too-tempting easy answers in our contemporary desert of disbelief.
Given both the bricolage of genres and the relative paucity of storyline, the hour and a half production manages to nonetheless thoroughly captivate with its over-the-top spectacle thanks to director David Feldshuh providing a singular, coherent vision to the disparate elements at play. The singing is admittedly uneven in spots, but that may be expected from having to assemble such numbers, though it can be distracting due to the otherwise high production values. Dominic Inferrera as the Celebrant is competent throughout, though never more. Fortunately, it’s not really the singing — or the music per se — that is the focus. Instead, the production succeeds because it keeps a kinetic pace, exploring the torsion between large-scale dance numbers (choreographed by Joyce Morgenroth and Christine Olivier) and spot-lit solo singing, immoderate theatrical tableaux and inner spiritual turmoil.
In the background, the entire stage is filled with rows of dark-cowled monks. In the foreground, the priest, along with his loyal altar boys and girls, must ward off everyone from a televangelist shilling salvation that is “goddamn good” to a ragtag train of carnies with oversized angel and devil puppets. A troupe of dancers in white spandex — spattered with ’80s New Wave razzle-dazzle, complete with crimpled, teased and poofy hair — frolic and flirt around the actors and singers. Just as the Eucharist is about to be performed, they sensually slink-in to steal the chalice and religious paraphernalia. The coordination of so many forces creates riveting stage pictures, whether it’s the barely controlled chaos of the entire cast erupting in a dance riot or the mounds of bodies that litter the ground amid huge crosses athwart, rising despite being knocked over, tilted at cross-purposes.
Another energetic aspect of the show was the triptych of large screens, which loom above the stage. The projections (designed by Marilyn Rivchin) conjure a specific tone-world, such as a contemporary graffiti-strewn cityscape or a menacing canopy of gloom-clouds, in place of set changes. Throughout the show, the screens also kaleidoscope with a montage of religious iconography and harrowing details of paintings by such masters as Masaccio, Van Eyck and Francis Bacon.
The striking clash of different styles leaves one with the uneasy question of whether religion reduces to ritual and dramaturgy. How can one distinguish empty, aimless “spirituality” from some truer or higher communion and devotion? Is belief ultimately performative; are the conditions of faith even available in a time when the only idea that seems absolute is relativism? While Bernstein’s Mass appears shallow when it tries to resolve these problems with a feel-good chant, the production’s scope and ambition finally exist only as a foil to impinge these questions in sharper relief upon a single consciousness that must reckon with its own decisions.
Bernstein’s Mass will be playing at the Schwartz Center through April 26 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $8 and $10.