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University Productions: Pentecost

October 6, 2010
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scene from Pentecost Art, politics and global community take center stage in season-opening play

The University of Michigan Department of Theatre & Drama opened the 2010-2011 season with Pentecost by English playwright David Edgar.

Wonderfully thought-provoking, the drama presents an array of ideas about the definition of nationalism, conflicting attitudes toward art, and the need for a global community. Directed by U-M Assistant Professor of Theatre Malcolm Tulip, Pentecost played October 7-17  in the Arthur Miller Theatre in Ann Arbor.

Best known for his Tony Award-winning adaptation of The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Edgar is one of England’s premier contemporary political playwrights. Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Pentecost is the second in a trilogy of political plays dealing with the transition of Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The work won the esteemed Play of the Year Award from the London Evening Standard in 1995.

The play is set in an abandoned church in an unknown post-Soviet-era Eastern European country. A museum curator has discovered a fresco that could radically change the history of western art and re-establish her country’s national identity. As she struggles through language barriers to authenticate the find, competing interest groups – from art historians, to religious groups, to the state itself – vie to claim ownership of the work.

Suddenly, a group of armed multi-ethnic refugees demanding asylum storms into the church taking the historians hostage. As each refugee tells their story in their native tongue, the peculiarities of (mis)translation lead to surprising and shocking conclusions for both the artistic mystery and political intrigue.

The title, Pentecost, comes from a biblical story out of the book Acts. In the story, the Holy Spirit rushes over the Apostles and brings them a multitude of tongues to speak in. The Apostles are amazed to find that they can understand each other in these new languages; the barriers of language have been blown away.

In the play, each of the refugees speaks the language of their origin – Bulgarian, Arabic, Polish, Russian, Turkish, Sinhalese, and others. (Please note: The production will not translate their dialogue for the audience.)

“Edgar uses these scenes to underscore the universalities between peoples,” states dramaturg Matthew Bouse, a senior in the Dept. of Theatre & Drama. “Despite divisions of language, the characters begin to understand and relate to each other.”

Members of the Ann Arbor community and Associate Professor of Theatre (Voice) Annette Masson assisted Tulip in helping the cast learn the various dialects.

In March, the cast had the opportunity to meet with the English playwright while he was in town with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He particularly spoke with the company about the genesis of the play. Edgar wrote Pentecost after the fall of the Berlin Wall in response to changing attitudes towards Eastern Europe. Decades of division between East and West were crumbling, and the continent was washed with a unifying sense of community. Within a few years, however, attitudes had changed. The transition from socialist states to independent republics was neither smooth nor bloodless.

As the East struggled to find its way, Western Europe became concerned with possible mass immigrations, unsure of the effect that waves of fleeing immigrants might have on their stable cultures. When addressing the company, Edgar was careful to draw attention to the hopefulness buried beneath the play’s conflict. He emphasized that the title’s spirit, the celebratory feast Pentecost, is as important as its meaning.

A quartet of undergraduates in the Department of Theatre & Drama joined Tulip, Bouse, and Masson on the creative team. Marguerite Woodward (All’s Well That Ends Well) served as scenic designer, Corey Lubovich (Under Milk Wood) designed costumes, Adam McCarthy (All’s Well That Ends Well, Uncommon Women and Others) designed lighting, and Colin Fulton, a junior in the new BFA Inter Arts program, was the sound designer.

Kerianne M. Tupac is marketing and communications director for University Productions. Photos: Peter Smith Photography.

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