Producing quality theater is always a challenge. Academic theater programs have the added challenge of finding a script that meets certain learning outcomes. The play must also be an ensemble piece that has enough roles to give substantial stage time for all of the students in the course, further limiting the script choices.
Some shows work very well, such as Lansing Community College’s 2009 production of “Balm in Gilead.” Some are downright painful, as evidenced by Michigan State University’s 2009 production of “The Trojan Women,” done in Japanese Noh style.
And some, like Lansing Community College’s current production of “Pentecost,” fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum.
The script is a convoluted mess, which may be an intentional choice made by the playwright to mirror the complexity of its setting. The setting is an unnamed Eastern European country that is still rebuilding in a post-Cold War world. The people and government are struggling with issues involving religion, intolerance, national identity and pride, and cultural heritage.
The play takes place in a medieval church in a small village. Inside, a fresco has been discovered that might predate a famous fresco by 14th century master Italian artist Giotto, which has been credited with kicking off a new era of realism in European art.
British art historian Oliver Davenport (Scott Crandall) has been brought in to help museum director Gabriella (Becky Owens) to determine the painting’s age and preserve it.
Meanwhile, clergymen from two different sects that had at various times in history occupied the church are vying to regain control over it. One hires American art historian Leo Katz (Matt Land, playing the character with the easy charm of Justin Timberlake) to challenge Davenport’s evaluation of the painting. As the first act draws to a close, a group of political refugees storm the church and take the principles hostage.
As Act 2 begins, the realization sinks in that the audience members are as much hostages as the poor folks on stage. Playwright David Edgar has squeezed so many themes into one work that it’s hard to identify the predominant theme of “Pentecost.”
In his director’s notes, Chad Badgero focuses on the idea of communication and commonality among people across cultures, and that certainly is one of the themes. However, the climax and denouement of the play are so scattered as to make one unsure of the prevailing message.
Putting the plot aside, the production values of the play are strong. Michael Beyer’s lighting is spectacular, as he washes the stage with the intricate and soothing qualities of sunlight falling through stained glass. Bartley Bauer slam-dunks yet another set.
While the acting is solid all around, the combination of multiple accents presents a challenge.
On opening night, the younger cast members seemed to struggle to maintain the integrity of the accent of their character’s origins. With no fewer than a dozen unique accents, this is no mean feat, and perhaps it’s a bit much to expect from sophomore-level students. While the cast members do their best, the clash of accents mixed with middling amplification presents the audience with many auditory challenges. (For this reason, this reviewer apologizes for any factual errors in the summary of the plot.)
All weaknesses aside, the play does have a few rewarding moments. One nicely choreographed scene allows the hostages and their captors to bond through popular American culture and eventually music and dance.
The play also features the strongest action sequence in recent Lansing theatrical history. It would be a spoiler to give too much away; suffice to say that very few hostage situations end with a cigar and a handshake.
Still, despite the bang, the playwright ends the work with a whimper.
Lansing Community College Performing Arts Dart Auditorium 500 N. Capitol Ave., Lansing 8 p.m Friday, April 1 and Saturday, April 2 $10 adults; $5 students, seniors, LCC faculty, staff and alumni (517) 372-0945