A play that runs over three hours really has a message it wants to get across. Tony Kushner’s iconic and lengthy Angels in America, for example, seeks no less than to capture the meaning of a millennium’s ending, the legacy of American exceptionalism and the tragedy of epidemic. David Edgar’s The Pentecost now on at the Yale Rep is no exception, running a full 190 minutes and tackling the questions of Western civilizations’ legacies and responsibilities to those who arrive seeking refuge at their doorsteps.
The entire play unfolds in a historic church in an unspecified former Soviet Union country — the kind filled with places, visiting British art expert Oliver Davenport comments, whose names sound familiar, but that “one had vaguely thought to be made up.” But these unpronounceable city names have filled the papers recently, as debates about Eastern European countries joining the European Union rage. A faded but looming communist-era mural spans much of the set’s run-down church wall; Eastern Europe’s recent history and uncertain future are very much the backdrop of the first act.
The story begins with Gabriella Pecs, a spunky local museum curator, bringing Davenport to see a painting she has unearthed behind the church wall’s plaster. The painting resembles the work of early Renaissance master Giotto, and she wants the British expert to confirm her theory. They’re awe struck at her idea that maybe “it’s not that this looks like Giotto, but that Giotto looks like this” — perhaps Western art was born not in Florence, but in this seemingly far flung village at the distant outskirts of European civilization.
The first act of the play deliberates the question of whether or not to relocate what might be a historical treasure from the church’s wall. Pecs, speaking endearingly flawed English with a thick accent, makes the case to feature the painting in the country’s national museum. But while she is in the process of peeling the paint from the church wall, Jewish-American Cornell professor Leo Katz turns up uninvited to thwart her efforts. In an alliance of convenience with the Catholic priest, he has come for the same reason he has gone on similar crusades around the world — to preserve local artworks in their historical settings. Is it wrong to destroy the painting’s historical home in this building that was once a church, then a horse stable during Nazi occupation and then later a makeshift prison during the communist era?
The two clash furiously. For Pecs, the past forty years of her country’s history were marred by failure — a time best forgotten. To all countries of the West, hers is the country that “made a botch of Socialism, and then a bigger botch of free market capitalism,” and whose language sounds ridiculous. The national heritage of an artistic genius, an equal if not the father of the greatest masters, is a way for her country to show the neighbors to their West that they stand on equal footing. The left-wing Katz challenges her, explaining his principled belief in letting historical pieces age and not abusing them as “stars” to attract tourists, money and fame.
He is a brash American attempting to force his liberal convictions on others, and she is a spirited, proud and resolute Eastern European; they, like other characters, sometimes come across as caricatures representing their countries. The play also features the Minister for Preservation of National Monuments (or possibly Minister of the Restoration of National Monuments — he can’t quite remember his full title), wearing a garish purple suit. He tries to cut a deal with Davenport to turn the painting into a tourist trap — he serves to represents the corrupt and ideologically bankrupt post-communist government more than he is an engagingly complex character. Though certainly interesting, the play is weak at points in its first act at meeting the measure of a powerful historical drama: to tell the story of ideologies, politics and history through the compelling humanity of its characters.
This shortcoming of telling ideas more than showing them is overcome in the more dramatic and suspenseful second act. Focusing on Eastern Europe as the “crossroads” between West and East — and thus also the “dumping ground” for the Eastern migrants the West does not deign to allow into its borders — the second act begins with group of asylum seekers who have stormed the church. They barricade the doors and seize Davenport, Katz and Pecs as hostages. Their demand is asylum for themselves, and the just treatment for all refugees across the world.
The lively dynamic between hostages and the band of refugees — united even though they have come from different parts of the world — is as gripping as it is beautiful. The painting’s significance as a foundation of Western legacy takes on another meaning here, as this eclectic group’s members state their moral right to their places in Western civilizations.
One of the most striking scenes I have ever seen takes place in the tense early morning hours as the refugees await the authorities’ response to their radical demands. Prompted by the group, one begins to play the cello she has carried with her on her journey. A young Kurdish woman raises her voice for the first time, beginning to sing in her native language. The lighting changes to bring out the age of the church’s stone walls and the depiction of Jesus in the center of the historic painting. For the first time, the church is a serene and spiritual space, rather than one of contention and violence — the people of distant countries, from Sri Lanka to the United States, are together entranced by her song.
In this moment, the painting’s legacy as a piece of Western history is multicultural, and a celebration of the universal beauty of art. But in a shocking turn, the authorities negotiating with the refugees unequivocally reject this version of Western heritage. Blowing the painting’s wall to pieces for commandos to break in and neutralize the refugees, the play finishes with the searing image of a gaping hole, spewing explosives’ smoke, where once a symbol of the potential Western civilization stood.
Hannah Kazis-Taylor | firstname.lastname@example.org .