The life of St. Francis of Assisi was dramatic. The child of a wealthy Italian merchant, he had a 12th-century playboy childhood, went to war and spent a year in captivity. He had mystical visions, stole from his disapproving father to give to the church, and devoted himself to a life of poverty in imitation of Christ, establishing a religious order. He saw God in nature, thanking the sun, preaching to birds—an example of equality and ecology, followed by many, including the current Pope.
Very little of this drama returns in “God’s Fool,” the dance theater piece about Francis that opened Thursday at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater. And despite being conceived and directed by Martha Clarke, the creator of many acclaimed dance theater pieces, “God’s Fool” contains very little dance theater.
Instead, Francis (Patrick Andrews) and his followers usually wander around a gravel-strewn podium in monks’ garb, talking about God and faith. When in doubt, they sing.
That in itself is not a problem, because the vocals, usually unaccompanied, are excellent. Hosted and directed by Arthur Solari, it helps set the world from scratch as the cloaked cast kicks off an Easter vigil. And the frequent retreat to song gives a sense of a confused herd clinging to community.
But the singing does add to the confusion of time and genre in the show. The selections stray from Francis’s time to an African American spiritual and some Gustav Mahler. When Francis starts a Broadway-style duet with the American national anthem “Wayfaring Stranger” with Clare, the female member of his flock, we’re definitely not in Assisi anymore.
Andrews’ Francis is all American, a lost boy. In a way, he wouldn’t look out of place in a David Mamet play or maybe in “Rent.” He makes big mood swings, laughs hysterically, cries when necessary, exhorts about nature like a Beat poet. The Saint must have been a disruptive, baffling figure, but when Francis’s exasperated father calls him a hobo and a brat, it feels all too accurate.
This central performance is at odds with Fanny Howe’s poetic text. The script is sparse, alternating between monologues and scenes that are not naturalistic dialogue, but exchanges of fragments. A representative goes like this:
Francis: Beat me Leo.
Leo: I can’t beat you Francis.
Luca: You should join the circus, Francis.
Francis: I should die.
The delivery makes this and many similar exchanges unintentionally comical. Experienced performance artist John Kelly, who plays a red-horned devil who accompanies Francis and his followers, deliberately adds a comedic and commedia dell’arte flavor. But neither Kelly, nor oversized animal heads (masks by Margie Jervis) nor bits of movement between scenes (everyone being blown by the wind or carrying Francis up) compensate enough to give the production the strangeness and wonder it needs.
And so, while some of the dramatic incidents in Francis’s life are dealt with – beating his father, preaching to birds, the appearance of stigmata and, more boldly, kissing Clare and the devil – almost nothing convincing or enlightening comes across. .
What resonates, along with the singing, is something unsung but latent in Howe’s words: “revelations from a world just an inch from our senses, like perfumes you can’t see, perfumes you catch from a maypole.” What “God’s Fool” would have revealed.
Through July 2 at Ellen Stewart Theater; lamama.org.