Goodman Theatre

When Jerry Falwell quit the PTL Club the other day, he said Jim and Tammy Bakker’s indiscretions amounted to a “scab” and a “cancer” on Christianity–one of the worst in 2,000 years of Church history.

He truly said that. Yes he did.

Now, it’s no big surprise to see Falwell demonstrating a grasp of history about equal to the sum of Pat Robertson’s combat experience. But the sheer sweep of ignorance and hubris implicit in a statement like that is almost beyond our poor comprehending, Lord. The Inquisition? The Crusades? The 30 Years War? The Salem witch trials? The persecution of the Jews? Mere trifles, says Jerry, compared to the Bakkers’ penchant for dipping into company funds . . . and company secretaries.

Clearly, the ahistorical Mr. Falwell needs to be shown what a real cancer looks like. And Peter Barnes may be just the guy to do it. Barnes’s vaudeville miracle play, Red Noses, picks enthusiastically at some classic ecclesiastical sores. Set in 14th-century France during the Great Plague that killed off anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of the population of Europe–depending on whom you read–Red Noses offers a cheerfully nasty vision of the late medieval Church, portraying it as a cynical fraternity of fat cats, cowards, plotters, predators, and protectors of the status quo.

Not very pretty. Rather disturbing, in fact, when you consider how very much like old-fashioned Catholic-bashing the formulation sounds. But Barnes’s sentiments aren’t particularly, or specifically, antipapist. If he seems to be out to get the Holy Father–in this case, Pope Clement VI–it’s first of all because he sees Clement’s Church, with its temporal power and practical politics, in a more or less Marxist light: as an oppressive structure that depends for its continued existence on the acquiescence–not to mention the reverence–of the oppressed.

And second of all, because he’s actually out to get everybody. The pope included. Barnes is a thoroughly catholic satirist–capable of ridiculing aristocrats and peasants, clergy and laymen, enemies and friends, the living and the dead. They’re all fools at heart to him. Necessarily. Simply because they’re here. Simply because they’re part of the horror of things.

What other position could he possibly take, given his subject matter? I mean, imagine it: an unspeakable holocaust takes hold of the world, issuing from an unknown source, governed by unknown laws. Doctors are absolutely useless–one hobbles across the stage on stilts, reciting his prognostic litany: “I prescribe wine and they die, no wine and they die, abstinence and they die, debauchery and they die . . .” The Church and the nobility are hunkered down behind their walls, trying to wait things out.

Denied traditional sources of guidance, people on the streets are learning to improvise. Flagellants take the sins of Man quite literally on their flayed backs. A group of “Black Ravens” practices biological insurrection, attempting to bring down the social structure through the tactical use of pus. Respectable citizens go bacchic. And a priest named Flote founds a company of misfits who go about wearing red clown noses and offering entertainments for the amusement of the populace and the comic glory of God.

Red Noses focuses on the Flotians–on their reckless way of bouncing between a vision of themselves as God’s fools, and their realpolitik role as the pope’s dupes.

The whole play bounces around, really–ennobled and subverted by turns. And sometimes all at once. Cynicism is undercut by naivete, naivete by horror, horror by sentiment, sentiment by stupid jokes, stupid jokes by love, love by cynicism. Barnes’s style amounts to a perpetual, Brechtian game of “Paper/Scissors/Stone.” I like the playfulness of it. The garrulous, ornery, vulgar, silly, vicious changeableness of it. The way dozens of smaller plays are allowed to proliferate within it. I like the sense of a playwright’s extraordinarily fertile, extraordinarily literate imagination telling him, Yes, but this too, and this too, and this too. . . .

Of course, it’s possible you won’t. Barnes’s relentless wit can lead to verbal overload at times, his subversive inclinations to passages that some people are bound to consider obscene. And though the obvious delight Barnes takes in his writing is one of the great sensual pleasures of Red Noses, that joy also makes him reluctant to part with the play even when it’s over: the thing has to end maybe a half dozen times before he’ll finally let go. Red Noses, as they say, isn’t for everybody.

Still, if you avoid it you’ll be missing a smart, slick, splashy show, complete with onstage auto-da-fe. Director Jeff Steitzer’s put together a kind of morbid carnival, reminiscent of the Flying Karamazov Comedy of Errors that played the Goodman a few years back.

He’s also put together a large and thoroughly remarkable cast. Though Ivar Brogger seems a little too Pippin-ish as Father Flote, he’s an effective straight man for the likes of Jeffrey Hutchinson’s stuttering comedian and John Mohrlein’s grandiose flagellant, Susan Osborn-Mott’s sexually frustrated nun and Lawrence McCauley’s chillingly lycanthropic pope, Tom Towles’s blind juggler and Carl DeSanti’s ethereal fool. And literally dozens of others. This production’s got something that’s increasingly common and wonderful in Chicago: a collection of talented, various, and experienced local actors, capable of performing to a high level of excellence. Along with the others, people like Paul Barrosse, Pat Bowie, William Brown, John Cothran Jr., Richard Fire, B.J. Jones, Bradley Mott, and Michael Tezla are all solid members of an emerging–and precious–citywide professional ensemble. And Steve Totland, by the way, deserves some kind of award for keeping his character’s involuntary tremor going through an entire evening.

Now if only we could get Falwell in to see it.

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