The Court Fool

Warning: This review may contain spoilers.
By George Hamzo
Directed by Sean Brennan
Performed by George Hamzo, Shane Davis, Alex Little, Meg Brock
Banished By The King Productions
The Arts Project Theatre
May 12–14, 2011

If you are thinking of a saint who is not connected to an over-commercialized holiday, St. Francis of Assisi usually comes to mind. This play, although burdened with some confused chronology and an overlong ending, is an engagingly down to earth story about this remarkable man.

Narrated by Francis’ cousin, Angelo Bernardone, we see the story of Frank Bernardone, a man who grows weary of the secular world and is inspired to pursue his calling serving God in his own way.  Out of a combination of obligation because of his cousin’s generosity and inspiration at his cousin’s otherworldly piety, Angelo joins him as a fellow monk. Despite their connection before God, Angelo and Francis find themselves diverging in their priorities of faith and their longings until an irreconcilable rift occurs that is beyond a miracle to reconcile.

I came into this play expecting it to be some stiff religious piece like the kind of passion play the main characters replaced in the film, Jesus of Montreal. Instead, I experienced a refreshingly down to earth take on the saint’s story that moderates the reverence for a more human point of view.  In that regard, we see Francis through the eyes of his cousin as a man of sincere goodness, but utterly committed to a sense of holy purpose and connection that others around him would consider insane. However, this play takes a fair look at him in a story with infectious humour that establishes the characters’ humanity without ever denigrating them.

Furthermore, the rise of the apparently inexplicable is treated with a non-judgmental tone that allows you to interpret the situation yourself. That approach extends to the climactic argument of the story where there are irreconcilable differences, giving the spirituality of the tales a special complexity that trusts the audience to be able to choose what is the right thing to do with their own conscience. In doing so, you will grow to understand the real story of this monk and the reality that saints do not necessarily fit into their time, nor are their motives always easy to understand.

However, the play suffers from partially disjointed plotting that makes the chronology of events rather confusing concerning a drastic medical procedure with an aftermath that comes and goes in different scenes in the second act. That narrative inconsistency saps the dramatic power of the play as the story flow is temporarily thrown out of whack. Furthermore, the film’s epilogue is poorly paced with an imagined reconciliation that seems to go at a snail’s pace. It should be edited more concisely to make sure the potent drama in that scene is not diminished by the rising boredom it provokes instead.

That being said, the players are wonderful for this simple production. Shane Davis is perfect as Francis, a man profoundly inspired by his religion, but with an undeniable humanity that would lead to him to make mistakes that confuse the right spiritual thing for the wrong human one.  George Hamzo is equally masterful as Angelo, a man with a powerful loyalty to his cousin, but firmly rooted in the real world. This play is ultimately as much about him, as a man who ultimately decides that his life cannot subsist on the Word of God alone. That is not a common plotline for this kind of story, but Hamzo makes it work exquisitely as a man coming to his own secular epiphany that Francis can never understand.

Supporting them, Meg Brock makes the most of her limited stage time as a woman profoundly moved by Francis’ piety, only to have it conflict with her attraction to Angelo, thus leaving profound emotional wreckage in her resolution. Alex Little on the other hand has the most challenging task with three separate roles. Whether he is the hilariously hammy Pietro Bernardone, Francis’ father and doubletalking clothing merchant, or the ridiculously pretentious Pope or the stolid Brother John, Little masterfully handles them all with surprising ease and thespian aplomb.

The stagecraft is well conceived for a black box theatre with just light sprinkling of carefully chosen sounds and lighting arrangements to suggest a world in the audience’s imagination. The only major exception is the excruciating scene of Francis facing a horrifically extreme medical measure for his eye infection. With a glow stick and some careful exposition, you will be cringing at such medicinal barbarity until the scene mercifully cuts it short. In addition, the costuming by Jessica Eberle feels remarkable authentic for the budget restrictions of this kind of production without falling into movie cliches. As a result, the players create a historical world that vividly recreates what it can while providing enough of a bridge for the audience’s imagination to do the rest.

The lives of the Saints can shaded by an air of reverence that clouds the real truth about their lives. The Banished by the King players have deftly escaped that trap to present a powerfully human tale about one of the greatest of these esteemed people that moves you to the real picture beyond the stained glass prism.