by Lynn on November 26, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Adam Seybold
Directed by Alan Dilworth
Designed by Lorenzo Savoini
Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne
Starring: Maev Beaty
Cyrus Lane.

A beautiful production of a thought-provoking play about Pierre Teihard de Chardin who had one foot in the world of religion and the other in the world of science.

The Story. Pierre Teihard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest, a geologist, palaeontologist and philosopher. He was born in France in 1881 and died in New York City in 1955. He was part of the excavation team that discovered Peking Man in China and was celebrated for that discovery his whole life.

The story begins at almost the end. He is dying and has a little time before it’s final. A guide is about to take de Chardin on his next great journey but first they must go over the aspects of his life that seemed so at odds. He was a devout Jesuit priest who took his vows of chastity and poverty seriously. He was also curious about evolution. He wrote scholarly papers about his discoveries and many philosophical theories about science, original sin and our origins. His theories, both scientific and philosophical, were often at contrary to the teachings and attitude of the Catholic Church. As a result the Church hierarchy banned many of his papers from being published. Often de Chardin was forbidden to travel to give speeches or be involved in further exploration. Curiosity and devotion were his two ‘philosophies’ in a way.

The Production. Lorenzo Savoini designed the set, costumes and lighting. No word on whether or not he also made the coffee and hot chocolate before the show—but I digress. His set is spare, efficient and evocative. The audience sits around a large cube structure that suggests a large display case in a science or natural history museum. The tall bars at the corners are black at the bottom and gradually red at the top. The action of the play happens within the cube, so I guess the various characters, including de Chardin, are the specimens to view and examine.

The floor is composed of black and white squares. Many of the squares are also covers to compartments hiding props: a chair in one; a tea pot and cups in another; a suitcase in a third. The Guide rises up out of one of the squares as well.

As the audience files in, a man dressed in a black suit is laying face down on the floor in the middle of the cube. He is unconscious, pieces of a broken white tea cup lay beside him. He awakens, stands up unsteadily and we see he is wearing a priest’s collar. This is Pierre Teihard de Chardin (Cyrus Lane). Then a trap door in one corner flips up quietly to reveal The Guide (Maev Beaty) who will take de Chardin on his journey to discover himself. The Guide will take many guises on the journey: Lucille, a woman who loved him, and probably he loved her too; various authority figures in de Chardin’s life; and Lucy, a stranger who visits him when he is elderly but still has a tenuous connection to what he has done before.

Playwright Adam Seybold has written a play rich in language and in philosophical thought. He has made that whole world accessible to an audience perhaps not familiar with de Chardin’s world. At times the dialogue between de Chardin and his Guide seems like a debate. It’s a very stylized—with the Guide asking pointed questions and de Chardin answering almost in a formal way. De Chardin’s formality is intriguing but is still engaging.

Director Alan Dilworth has directed a production that is elegant in its simplicity and spareness. It also seems as clinical as if what is going on in the cube is like a one of de Chardin’s discoveries and we are going to look at it from every angle. Dilworth has de Chardin and the Guide or the other characters circle each other, wary, or emotionally charged.

The acting is superb. As de Chardin, Cyrus Lane is contained, formal, a man often at odds with his emotions; a man confused and conflicted by his beliefs, but a man so intensely curious. In a breathtaking moment de Chardin tells the Guide that he is fascinated by a force whose face he cannot see—namely God’s. The moment is revelatory, to have such belief in a ‘thing’ whose face you never see.

As the Guide and various other characters, both men and women, Maev Beaty brings a cool intelligence and compelling emotion to every role she plays. The Guide is not only leading de Chardin to death, she is leading him to finally learn about himself. The interplay between Cyrus Lane and Maev Beaty is like watching two pros in an intricate dance, each serving the other.

Comment. Playwright Adam Seybold doesn’t dwell so much in the actual technical aspect of de Chardin’s life in science as much in his psychological and emotional connections. De Chardin was intensely curious. He was always thinking. There was always a struggle. He probably did love Lucille but had to struggle against giving into the emotion. He followed an oath of celibacy and he would stick to it. His beliefs in evolution of course were also at odds with the Church. His convictions in science led to reprimands from the Church.

Playwright Alan Seybold and the creative team behind The De Chardin Project beautifully put you in that world. You will be curious to know more about Teihard de Chardin after this beautiful production.

Produced by Theatre Passe Muraille

Opened: Nov. 25, 2014
Closes: Dec. 14, 2014
Cast: 2; 1 man, 1 woman
Running Time: 90 minutes.

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