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“Narrative closure is idolatrous,” huffs Erik Ehn in the preface to his The Saint Plays, as though warning us that the dramas that will follow were made on equipment shared with peanuts and shellfish. There’s nothing wrong with ambiguous endings—three years later, David Chase looks pretty smart for silencing The Sopranos with the cockteasing-est order of onion rings in the history of both television and junk food—provided you’re willing to risk leaving much of your audience behind. And when they follow equally ambiguous beginnings and middles? Frustration guaranteed.
The Factory 449 theater collective debuted at last year’s Capital Fringe Festival with Sarah Kane’s free-verse suicide note 4.48 Psychosis, a hit right out of the gate. The troupe’s follow-up, The Saint Plays, demands of its audience the same tolerance for experimentation it would bring to a Fringe show, not to mention the patience of a, well, you know. Exactly this much is readily apparent: This six-pack of “exploded biography” (Ehn’s phrase) of Catholic saints is a triumph of design and ensemble acting, which is almost fair recompense for the long, frequent stretches when it leaves us bereft of any clue of what the holy heck is going on. Is narrative clarity idolatrous, too? If you’re game for a two-an-a-half-hour ecclesiastical fever dream with good singing and puppetry, you’ll find much to admire here—even if the wildly ambitious enterprise ultimately amounts to less than the sum of its meticulously machined parts.
A video title card introduces the saints who inspired each play. The first, a gloss on the life of Joan of Arc, is over before it even registers. Two of the plays are dedicated to St. Rose of Lima, each transporting the 17th century martyr to a late 20th century scene of mass death. The best—that is, the most coherently told—features a soulful Lorena Sabogal in the role of Rufina Amaya, a survivor of the 1981 massacre wherein U.S.-trained, U.S.-equipped Salvadoran soldiers raped and murdered at least 700 civilian residents of the village of El Mozote. Straining the bonds of reason as it does, a story like this lends itself to the fractured, tactile rendering it gets here. Likewise the 1978 mass suicide at Jonestown, Guyana. Dexter Hamlett is hypnotic in the dual role of cult leader Jim Jones and Zacchaeus, the crooked Biblical taxman who repented after receiving Jesus as his dinner guest.
The relationship between each play and its patron saint is often opaque. St. George’s tribute evokes sympathy for the “dragon” he’s said to have slain; cast member Betsy Rosen designed and performs the puppet that embodies Gunna, a girl born with wings. Coming fifth in the lineup, this one has a straightforward telling by narrator Allyson Harkey that feels like a calming breath. Its predecessor, which finds John the Baptist living out a kind of stoner’s reverie in a New Mexico trailer park, features cameos by Buddy Holly and disgraced-then-vindicated Olympian Jim Thorpe. Relevance? Next question, please. The best thing in it is, again, Hamlett, appearing this time as the musician Sleepy LaBeef, recalling the first time he performed with one St. Elvis of Tupelo.
Exploiting the atmospheric charms of the Church Street Theater to the fullest, director John Moletress and his five designers shuffle their human and material resources into one alluring stage picture after another. They recycle their two major scenic elements, a shoebox stage with a red velvet curtain and a camping trailer, with admirable thrift. And the use of lighting and treated vocal amplification to suggest the presence of the otherworldly is perfectly executed. Against this sensory banquet, the actors manage to connect, too: David Lamont Wilson is commanding enough in his various small roles to make you wish he had more than a handful of lines. Tom Carman performs two haunting songs of his own composition (other musical contributions come from Moletress and the duo of Debra Buonaccorsi and Steve McWilliams, whose “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” musical revue has become a Fringe staple), and there’s that puppetry. Factory 449 founding fathers Moletress and Rick Hammerly have said they choose scripts primarily on the basis of what opportunities they offer for this kind of extra-narrative enhancement. There’s no question The Saint Plays comprise a dense, imaginative spectacle, one that works in mysterious ways, except for when it doesn’t work at all. It looks, sounds, and smells fantastic. It’s frequently ponderous and impenetrable. I can’t wait to see what they do next.