Friday, October 20, 2006

Resist the Temptation

"Ascension" Red Light District production at The Lion Theatre on Theatre Row, Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Look at the picture. Isn't he pretty?

That was the highlight of this overwraught and poorly written knockoff of "Doubt" with a twist in the wrong direction. (Spoiler Alert)

Father Cal (Stephen Hope) is accused by Agnes (Lucy McMichael) of molesting her son Lorenzo (Brandon Ruckdashel) when he was an adolescent. Shortly after she leaves her blackmail terms, Lorenzo, now a young adult, shows up. His story is slightly different from Mom's and leaves poor Father Cal equally threatened. Seems Father Cal is about to leapfrog from pastor to bishop, and a sex scandal is the last thing he needs in his life.

Seems each character has their own agenda, murky as those agendas may be. Agnes turns out to be schizophrenic, Lorenzo a sociopath, and Father Cal is just overly ambitious.

Edmund De Santis' script has some interesting potential, playing off the not-so-current wave of sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church over the past few years. It turns out that Father Cal is indeed physically innocent of Agnes' charges. Lorenzo has been carrying a torch for the padre since he was an altar boy. Father Cal thought he'd dodged the bullet of Lorenzo when he turned away from the boy before anything could happen between them.

Now that Lorenzo has returned in the flesh, quite literally, he seduces Father Cal, fulfilling Agnes' accusations, but now with much less weight. Even after the seduction is complete and Lorenzo has left, the plot twists continue with Father Cal pulling a few rabbits out of his own hat.

Mr. De Santis has created a complicated series of plot twists that I suppose were meant to be clever, but the result is a convoluted and confusing story line, which I'm not sure I understand even now. Just about everything presented gets contradicted. I don't know which were true in the end, and I'm not sure I care.

Marc Geller has directed this piece with only one eye open. If he had opened the other, he might have seen a way to instill a little more reality in the production.

As Father Cal, Mr. Hope is the hardest working man in NY theatre. He's giving everything he has and then some to try to instill some level of realism or credibility into this play. His physicalization: quivers, shakes, fumes, and even a pretty believable asthma attack on more than one occasion shows an actor who knows his craft.

Ms. McMichael seems to have much less to work with, both from her material and her skill. Her only expression throughout the show is like she smells rotten fish. Even when her character switches from one personality to the other, it's only her words that give any signal of the shift. And for all the anger in her lines, there's rarely any of it in her voice.

Mr. Ruckdashel is surely pretty, though. His diction isn't bad, but most of his lines sound like he's reading from his script. His Lorenzo doesn't give us the kind of calculating, scheming, desperate young man that his lines would portray.

Aaron Mastin's set, with its red walls and floor and cross-shaped mullions in the skylight strive to evoke the spirit intended, but the large, somewhat eroticized painting of Christ on the cross seems out of place for Father Cal's office in his private quarters. There were several references to the attractive physique portrayed in the painting, but I think a small three-dimensional crucifix would have served the proceedings better.

Costumes by Dennis Ballard are perfectly serviceable. Of course, we get to see both Father Cal and Lorenzo in and out of costume, so we know exactly what he was given to work with.

Other reviewers seemed to have found much more depth in this production. I didn't see it.

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