Night Battles

Live Bait Theater

By Kerry Reid

“Biography is the mesh through which our real life escapes,” observes Oscar Wilde in Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love. History often seems an industrial-size fishing net, gathering up all manner of statistics, movements, beliefs, and half-remembered stories from the briny deep of the past. Some evidence we look for, while other bits just happen to be swimming by.

Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg’s Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries is based on Catholic archives he discovered in northern Italy in the 1960s. These capture a fascinating, otherwise overlooked aspect of the Inquisition: its investigation in the late 1500s of the benandanti (literally, “good doers” or “good walkers”), a group of peasants near Venice who believed they were called by God to do battle against witches in order to protect the community’s crops and livestock. But the ancient rural beliefs their quest represented conflicted with the hierarchy and doctrines of the urban church, which sought to curtail their witch-hunting. Ginzburg gives this tale of the republic of Venice in conflict with the church of Rome and of religious ecstasy verging on the erotic considerable lyricism and poetry.

But Donald Gecewicz’s adaptation for Live Bait, directed by Susan Leigh, offers only the bare bones of this conflict, not the vibrancy and passion that lie behind it. Gecewicz provides the gist of the story but tries to cram too many historical threads into the script, and Leigh’s stodgy direction fails to ignite the material or make the conflicts vital.

The bulk of the script is devoted to interrogations by Franciscan monk Fra Felice (Scott Rowe) of the benandanti, particularly Paolo Gasparutto (Sharon Gopfert). But watching these scenes unfold called to mind numerous superior renderings of heresy and witchcraft trials, from Shaw’s Saint Joan to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to Caryl Churchill’s Vinegar Tom. (In fact, the gamine Gopfert resembles the popular image of Joan.) What’s lost in all the blustering and threats of Rowe’s monk and the confused denials of Gopfert’s peasant is that these investigations were significantly different from many other Inquisition hearings.

The greatest difference is that the benandanti openly asserted–at least at first–that they were obeying God’s will and had been protecting their community from evil for hundreds of years. All were born with the caul, or amniotic membrane, still attached–considered a sign of second sight. (Like Buffy, the benandanti had greatness thrust upon them.) They testified about being called out of their sleeping bodies four times a year for “night battles” in which they confronted the witches and warlocks who threatened their livelihoods. Their beliefs and actions have obvious connections to pagan seasonal festivals. What’s odd is that, though the church made a cottage industry out of transforming pagan rituals into official church practice, it didn’t attempt to assimilate the benandanti. And Gecewicz never makes clear why the church felt so threatened by them.

Felice occasionally adopts a sarcastic tone toward the peasants’ night battles. But such comments are quickly followed by thundering denunciations of their actions, which engenders confusion. Does Felice believe they’re engaged in supernatural practices or not? He delivers a soliloquy praising Christ and His sacrifices so passionately it’s just this side of sexual, but we’re unsure if we’re meant to see his mystical passion as different from the benandanti’s or so much alike that he must be a closet case recoiling from what he secretly desires. Felice also has a morbid fascination with the benandanti’s cauls, which they carry in bags on their persons, that veers into virgin-cult territory. “It’s only a membrane, isn’t it?” he tells Paolo, cajoling the peasant into giving up his amulet.

A subplot–Felice’s power struggle with the Venetian prelate (Andrew Dannhorn)–fails to help us understand why controlling the benandanti mattered so much to Rome. And though the benandanti were dealt with much more mercifully than many other victims of the Inquisition–no torture was used against them–the script doesn’t tell us whether that was a function of Franciscan practice or of the Venetian church protecting its flock from Rome’s worst excesses.

The most striking omission in this production, however, is the sense of power and triumph that the benandanti must have had–something Ginzburg’s book conveys clearly. Only one of the night battles is staged, and Stephen Gray and Gopfert’s rote choreography for this section captures neither the shape-shifting for which the benandanti were famous nor the life-and-death stakes of their struggles. (Actually, the scene looked like the cast of Stomp! playing the angry villagers in Frankenstein.) The only time we really understand how desperate life is for the peasants is when a villager (Alida Vitas) tells Felice, “If you’ve ever been reduced to eating food for the pigs, you’ll fight for the crops.”

I remember a Lookingglass Theatre production almost ten years ago of Joy Gregory’s All Soul’s Day–in particular a scene in which Catherine of Siena receives her call from God. It made me realize just how seductive the out-of-body experiences of a religious life can be. I sense that Gecewicz wants to capture that sensation, but too often he opts for a safe History Channel-like depiction of events. This dutiful approach is made worse by Leigh’s staging. Most of the actors seem to have been told to declaim in flat tones reminiscent of grade-school filmstrips. The peasants and priests speak exactly alike, which further clouds our perceptions–what is the basis of this struggle? If it’s about the higher orders trying to control the peasantry, then we need something other than Alicia L. Turner’s eye-catching costumes to show us the difference between classes.

The most vibrant aspects of the production are Steven Conway’s lighting and projections, which switch from bucolic country scenes awash in golden light to period depictions of the Crucifixion. And Michele Gillman’s original music and sound design are suitably moody.

There’s a terrific story here somewhere. Gecewicz needs to tear the caul of historical fact off his infant play and trust it to squall unfettered at the top of its lungs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Christopher Lake.