Chicago Medieval Players

at the Fine Arts Building

The Chicago Medieval Players nicely describe themselves as “a happy collaboration of scholars and professional performers whose goal is to liberate the early repertoire from the suffocation of textbooks.” The current beneficiary comes from Spain’s golden age, The Great Stage of the World by Pedro Calderon de la Barca in a translation by William Brandt. By date–it was written in the 1630s–The Great Stage of the World is a baroque play, but as the true product of conservative Catholic Spain, in spirit and content it harks back to medieval morality plays. The Medieval Players are certainly in their element.

An aristocrat who was first a soldier and finally a priest, Calderon wrote an amazing 120 plays before he died in 1681 at the age of 82. Most are preoccupied with the vanity and emptiness of life, or with its betrayals: in an example of machismo at its ugliest, his comedias de capa y espada (“cloak and sword” comedies) fixate on a husband’s right to avenge his honor on even the barest rumor of a wife’s infidelity.

An equally bleak credo fills Calderon’s autos sacramentales–he wrote 70 of these “sacramental acts,” allegorical dramatizations of religious ideas. Pitting human transience against the eternity of God, The Great Stage of the World is a fine example of the playwright’s ability to ridicule folly through allegory. Here God is a director staging the perennial drama of our moral life, with the world as his stage manager and humankind as the actors. These personifications of vice and virtue and of various ranks play out their parts, with Grace the prompter; the Angel of Death snatches each off into a black-curtained holding pen at the end. A king, a beggar, a rich man, a peasant, a lady incarnating beauty, and a nun depicting discretion strut their hours across the stage and then, to make Calderon’s pitiless point, disappear dramatically. Each enters through a door with a cradle hanging over it and exits through the coffin-shaped portal to the figurative grave.

But not without first learning and teaching a terrible lesson. God, in his role as director, doles out parts to the seven mortals (the seventh is a child who dies before birth, pathetically playing no role at all). When the peasant and beggar quarrel with the director over their harsh assignments, God cautions them all to stoically accept their roles; he will judge them not by their parts but by how well they play them. And there will be no appeal.

As the play within a play begins, God assumes his cloud-framed throne (here rather tacky), and World distributes the distinguishing props: a crown and robe for the king, flowers and a mirror for Beauty–all strictly on loan, of course. Grace sings out the cues (e.g., “Love thy neighbor”), which they ignore at their peril. Each player has a moment to “discourse”–in effect a final audition before eternity–and then he or she dies: the rich man reluctantly, the poor man as if to a deliverance, Beauty appalled that loveliness can perish. It all feels much like a 17th-century rehearsal for The Seventh Seal.

The second act opens with rueful self-elegies by the now defunct mortals. Leveled by the democracy of death (“Rank ceases in the dust”), each persists in past errors or feelingly regrets a lost life of false hopes or engages in special pleading. (“Who cares about the king?” snarls the peasant. “The weather counts much more.”)

“I leave their roles solely in their own hands,” God says, then judges the dead by how they spent that free will. His sentences: instant paradise for Discretion and the beggar; purgatory for the peasant, Beauty, and the king; hell for the rich man; and limbo for the unborn child.

Howard Kaplan’s staging necessarily dispenses with the lavish stage machinery Calderon called for–giant globes that open up, movable side stages for the cradle and grave, a flying machine for Grace. Crude lighting and serviceable costumes must suggest the missing baroque splendor. But musical director Ann Faulkner (with Jeremy Warburg) provides a fitting aural framework: oboes and bells to accompany the celestial characters, drums and tambourine to heighten dramatic moments, dissonance for the Angel of Death, a haunting Spanish ballad for Beauty, and a vaguely Moorish chant to conclude the allegory. All nicely wrought.

Ponderous and profound, The Great Stage of the World makes for two devout and static hours. It’s clearly a labor of love by a theater that seems as unworldly as its name, and despite its Spanish gloom remains an accurate indictment of our planet of fools. Taking a cue from all those anonymous medieval painters, I’ll single out no solo turns; all 12 artists gave this grand sermon the populist conviction and selfless devotion it deserves.