Theater

Praise God and Die at La MaMa

Martha Clarke celebrates St. Francis in ‘God’s Fool.’

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God’s Fool, Martha Clarke’s 70-minute encomium to St. Francis of Assisi, unites two major forces in the New York theater community: La MaMa, the venerable East Village institution now celebrating its 61st year as an essential resource for experimental and international arts workers, and director Clarke, who’s been changing the temperature of performing arts in this country for more than 50 years.

Clarke, initially a Juilliard-trained dancer, emerged in 1972 as a founding member of the groundbreaking dance-theater troupe Pilobolus, which originated at Dartmouth. Member Alison Chase was at the time teaching at the college, Clarke was the wife of a resident artist at the then all-male campus, and the other four members of the original group were students. The collaborative habits they developed in New Hampshire have served Clarke well over the decades, as she composed and mounted such landmark productions as Garden of Earthly Delights and Vienna: Lusthaus, and the ill-starred 1990 Endangered Species, which featured live animals and garnered hostile reviews. Her more recent projects have included the powerful Angel Reapers, inspired by the Shakers and mounted at the Joyce and Signature theaters. 

Onstage at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theatre through July 2, Clarke’s latest piece is brilliantly executed and yet bewildering, especially to us poor Jews raised without much exposure to the texts and legends of St. Francis (canonized in 1228, two years after his death, in Assisi). Bewilderment, according to librettist/poet Fanny Howe, who contributed the text, is a kind of virtue, or blessing: “a way—to resolve the unresolvable,” she wrote 24 years ago in an essay on the subject. She referred to her own body of work as “existing all but untitled and without beginning or end, an explosion of parts, the quotidian smeared.” That is very much the experience this viewer had on encountering both Howe’s spare text and Clarke’s indeterminate landscape.

A sort of high-concept, ecclesiastical jukebox musical, God’s Fool boasts a playlist including selections ranging from seventh-century liturgy through Hildegard von Bingen (ca. 1098–1179), a Benedictine nun who had extraordinary visions and was roughly a contemporary of St. Francis, to snatches of John Cage, Carl Orff, Gustav Mahler, and Gavin Bryars’s recording of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. American spirituals are powerfully rendered live by James A. Pierce III, the sole Black member of the ensemble. We also hear church bells peel and birds chirp, as well as snippets of Italian, French, American, and African American folk songs. Musical director Arthur Solari, a frequent collaborator of Clarke’s, intertwines this material and a lot more, much of it in Latin and Italian, into a sonic environment, preparing us for sudden, sometimes violent encounters between the performers. 

Patrick Andrews’s Francis, “the little peacemaker from Assisi,” often comes across as a lost child: a charismatic, poetic figure reviled by his father (the powerful George de la Peña), patronized by the Pope, and taunted by the Devil (an inquisitive John Kelly, lean and threatening). But he is also quietly powerful, sustaining his band through frigid nights and driving rain (Kelly, on the balcony with a watering can). When they are starving, a loaf of bread materializes; Francis shares it with a suffering leper as one of his brothers gasps, “You’ll get sick!” The audience gasps in recognition along with him. He kisses the sick man.

At the back of the barnlike space, a deep blue cyclorama sprinkled with stars fronts the distant proscenium, behind which take place frequent transformations of the monks into masked birds and animals: a boar, a bear, a ram, a crow, a cardinal—all of whom bear silent witness to the lost, starving, searching human figures in their midst. The lone female, Sister Clare (Ingrid Kapteyn), washes Francis’s stigmata and suckles him when he appears to be near death. Clarke’s longtime collaborator Robert Israel contributed the scenic and mask design; Margie Jervis built the superb bird and animal heads. 

The cast of eight, wearing the hooded sackcloth robes, belted with rope, of Franciscan friars, is headed by Andrews, and completed, in addition to Kelly, de la Peña, Pierce, and Kapteyn, by Rico LeBron, Evan Copeland, and Luca Fontaine. Episodic, impressionistic, startling, intimate, God’s Fool makes effective use of the lawn-like expanse of La MaMa’s main stage, covered for the occasion with the rubbery detritus used as flooring for children’s playgrounds, which under Christopher Akerlind’s lighting comes to resemble ashes and bits of clay, wood chips and crumbled leaves. A tiny wooden church nestles at the back, sometimes lifted and carried about by one man or another.

Clarke’s great gift is to meet her material where it lives, leaning into the rhythms of liturgy and the silence of the ram. A  taste for poetry is probably necessary to fully appreciate this experience. “What have we just seen?” asked my companion as the lights came up and the audience rose to its feet, cheering.  Howe’s text is not quite linear, juxtaposing what sound like quotations from scripture with the doubts and fears of the young wanderers. In 1979, Britannica tells us, Pope John Paul II recognized Francis as the patron saint of ecology. Watching Andrews’s Francis lead his ragtag crew of acolytes through the landscape of Clarke’s work, I felt as if he were channeling Greta Thunberg as a neurodiverse gay boy, erotically charged and slightly tipsy from his powerful passion for all living things. 

La MaMa began life under theater director Ellen Stewart as a Village coffeehouse hosting experimental performances, and has emerged 60 years later as the anchor of a veritable avenue of the arts. The narrow, crumbling building Stewart purchased at 74 East 4th Street, now undergoing a gut renovation, was an essential locus in the development of the Off- and Off-Off-Broadway scenes. A couple of doors down, at 66 East 4th, the four-story, hundred-year-old structure housing God’s Fool has embossed-tin walls and narrow balconies on both sides; it has hosted hundreds of large-scale, important productions, many now documented in La MaMa’s growing digital archive. That this scrappy neighborhood incubator has become the site of a late work by a mature artist with 40 years of lauded productions to her credit, this one already postponed for many months, is an indication of the upheavals in the city’s theater landscape, where Covid has disrupted everything and longtime sites of experimental work are falling victim to escalating real estate values. 

Originally titled Canticle, God’s Fool feels at once ancient and timely, ecstatic and grim. Visit it if you are pious, questioning, a lapsed worshipper, a Jew, or, as Howe has called herself, an agnostic Catholic. It will repay your attention.   ❖

God’s Fool
Conceived and directed by Martha Clarke
La MaMa ETC
66 East 4th Street
Lamama.org
Through July 2

Elizabeth Zimmer has written about dance, theater, and books for the Village Voice and other publications since 1983. She runs writing workshops for students and professionals across the country, has studied many forms of dance, and has taught in the Hollins University MFA dance program.

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