The Chancellor's Tale

During an election season in which Catholic officials throughout the United States are debating whether to give communion to parishioners whose beliefs fall outside of the church's current ideology, Modern Muse Theatre Company's production of The Chancellor's Tale couldn't be more timely.

Joseph Miller, is a chancellor of an archdiocese in uproar over gay marriage, women's rights, and priestly conduct. His boss, the bishop, charges him with balancing the church's need for a united public front with the widely divergent positions of its flock, from the conservative interests of wealthy donors to the activist agenda of the liberation theologists.

Photo of (L to R) Marcus Waterman (Frank), Jim Hunt (Joseph), and Gabriella Cavallero (Ellen)
(L to R) Marcus Waterman (Frank),
Jim Hunt (Joseph),
and Gabriella Cavallero (Ellen)
Photo: Modern Muse Theatre Company
Serving as both narrator and participant, Jim Hunt, as Miller, illuminates the consummate politesse of this career churchman, gliding through his roles as sounding board for influential parishioners, counselor to priests and theologians, minister to street walkers, friend to seminarians, and confidant to the bishop.

Hunt revels in the role, gleefully sharing confidential information with his audience, graciously entertaining his minions, pontificating on Machiavellian backroom deal-making with bombastic delight, and, finally, touching us with his vulnerability while sharing his most personal fears.

Photo of Marcus Waterman (Frank)
Marcus Waterman (Frank)
Photo: Modern Muse Theatre Company
Over the years, the greatest challenge to the chancellor has been Frank Donnelly, the pastor at a local down-scale church. Donnelly went to Hanoi to protest the war in Vietnam, marched in Washington against poverty and for civil rights, and spoke out against the Reagan-Bush Iran-Contra scandal. Now Donnelly has blessed a lesbian marriage, setting off a media frenzy.

But Donnelly is not a firebrand. Played by Marcus Waterman, we come to know him as a concerned priest who is sincere in his belief that Jesus' teachings are about ministering to the downtrodden, the outcasts, the victims of an uncaring, materialistic system. Waterman's Donnelly remains level-headed throughout, whether genially greeting his old friends, or withdrawn in personal introspection.

Photo of (L to R): Gabriella Cavallero (Ellen) and Marcus Waterman (Frank)
(L to R) Gabriella Cavallero (Ellen)
and Marcus Waterman (Frank)
Photo: Modern Muse Theatre Company
This equanimity ultimately disappoints Ellen Bolger, a theologian at a local Catholic university, who respects Donnelly's idealism and shares his liberated views, but would like to take their relationship further. Gabriella Cavallero's Bolger brings a needed feminine sensitivity to the proceedings, showing heartfelt passion for women's issues as well as a nurturing sensibility in her relationship with Donnelly.

Counterbalancing Donnelly's and Bolger's freethinking is Peter Schirmers, a theologian who writes canonical opinions that the church uses in dispensing its peculiar brand of justice. The difficult task of modulating Schirmers' polarized personality—from his insistence on the unassailable truth of the written word to his sexually conflicted fantasy life—is handled by David Harms with aplomb. By maintaining equal tension at both extremes, Harms brings believability to Schirmer's uncompromising behavior.

Photo of (L to R) Jim Hunt (Joseph) and David Harms (Peter)
(L to R) Jim Hunt (Joseph)
and David Harms (Peter)
Photo: Modern Muse Theatre Company
Director Stephen Lavezza maximizes the Bug Theatre's narrow space with character entrances from the front and rear of Alex Wimer and Mary Ann Lane's multi-arched set, creating a apse-like effect at the back of the stage, while the audience serves as the congregation in the nave.

Though written 13 years ago, Paul Mohrbacher's play not only provides historical background to the church's recent conflicts, but serves as a perfect metaphor for today's debate over electioneering on the part of clergy around the country.

Additionally, the debate over the meaning and intent of the text in the New Testament—whether to accept what is written as the literal truth, or to take a broader view of historical events, including other testaments that were excluded from the final, edited "official version"—dovetails nicely with the controversies surrounding recent bestsellers such as Dan Brown's "The DaVinci Code" and Elaine Pagels' "Beyond Belief."

A few stilted conversations and a too-tidy ending aside, the script is both emotionally and intellectually engaging, and delivers a number of surprising turnabouts delivered with stirring dramatic effect by the talented cast.

The Modern Muse Theatre Company's production of The Chancellor's Tale runs through October 10th at the Bug Theatre. 303-780-7836.

Bob Bows


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