9/9/2023 PELAGIUS: A NEW MUSICAL Legacy Theatre
ROOTS OF BEING
Let me start with a bias disclaimer. I have been a crotchety old Atheist for most of my life and plays with religious themes more often than not push my cranky judgmental buttons, especially those plays that assert that “Faith” is morally superior to reason. Knowing this new musical by Legacy Artistic Director Mark Smith was a “passion project” seven years in the making did nothing to raise my expectations.
That being said, I found Pelagius a compelling and intelligent look at the forces and trends that create dogma, a moving portrait of two men at odds and with ”non-overlapping” interpretations of scripture, and a tuneful and even (sometimes) toe-tapping musical trek through history. And best of all, it was judgmental only about dogma, not about faith itself, advocating strongly for the “Pelagian Heresy.”
Two mothers on opposite ends of the Roman Empire are giving birth In a Roman colony in Africa, Monica gives birth to Augustine. In Wales, Eveline gives birth to Morgan (“sea-born”) then dies, leaving the baby to be raised by his sister Cordelia. We see both boys as children, as teenagers, and eventually as adults. Act II then brings them both to Rome, where they become friends even as their theologies diverge,
Both men were classically trained and familiar with the great writers of the ancient world, and both were charismatic public speakers. Some of their differences involved the place of Rome in the church, the place of women n the church, and the root conflict between Free Will and Original Sin. Because Augustine had “Rome on his side,” his vision prevailed and is now the core of Catholic dogma. Pelagius (the Latin translation of Morgan’s name) was banished, and this script has him returning to Wales and living out his life in the loving arms of his sister’s family and his village. Augustine, conversely, dies alone surrounded by the cold comfort of David’s Psalms.
There were many moments that I found singularly effective here. There is an Act II scene involving a woman, Demetrias, who seeks Pelagius’ council – her family wants her to remain a virgin and a “Bride of Christ,” but she would rather engage in the warmth of a husband and family. Pelagius’ response is to advise her that “If you choose to marry, you are a Bride of Christ. If you Choose to remain a virgin, you are a Bride of Christ. You are a Bride of Christ because You Are.” It was this letter that Augustine uses to attack his rival, but both the emperor and the Pope see no heresy in it. But when an attack on a Roman soldier is manufactured to appear Pelagius-inspired, the full might of Rome does what Augustine’s theological arguments could not.
The difference between the worldviews of Pelagius and Augustine couldn’t be more clear-cut – Morgan’s sister and mother were both leaders of the local church, so naturally he had no problem with a woman’s place leading a congregation. Augustine was raised by a devout mother who convinced him to cast aside his mistress only to be cast aside herself when Augustine equated ALL women with Eve.
Pelagius joyfully goes among the poor and destitute in Rome providing comfort and assistance, while Augustine has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the streets to interact with “those vermin.” Augustine revels in the Empire, in the strength of Rome, while Pelagius believes the church has become a “Church of Rome” rather than a “Church of Christ.”
If this conflict sounds familiar, I suspect Mr. Smith intentionally wants to draw parallels between the Rome of the fifth century, and our contemporary divide (more like abyss) between those of an authoritarian bent and those of a more egalitarian and empathetic worldview.
And that’s why even a skeptic like me can respond to this show. It’s on my side. Salvation should be a product of free will and life choices rather than a “prize for believing.”
If this all sounds like a dry seminary debate, know that it is filled with life, with vibrant songs and choreography, with singers who have voices that shake the rafters and ignite a flame of empathy. Special notice should be given to Grayson Yockey (Augustine) whose velvet baritone reaches the heights of power and skill. Tenor Jordan Ellis (Morgan/Pelagius) may have a voice that isn’t (quite) as strong, but nevertheless gives a performance that brings the man to life. Others of note were Brandin Jay and Melissa V. Cartwright as Morgan’s parents (who, even after death, are always in his mind guiding his path), Kristina Bryan as Monica (Augustine’s mother), Faith Jordan Candino as the concubine of Augustine’s youth, Mandy Corbett who makes Demetrias’ one-scene so unforgettable, Jordan van Zyl as Cordelia (Morgan’s sister), Chelsie Burks as the younger Cordelia AND her blind daughter Meredith, and Henry Cook and Grant Bard as the boys who would became Augustine and Morgan. They are amply supported by an ensemble that has enough energy to light up the sky.
As to the music (by Michael and Lisa Gungor), so much of it is so good, that I hesitate to quibble about a few numbers repeating certain lines to an uncomfortable degree, and to Augustine’s first exposure to his Mother’s church seeming more like a Southern Baptist revival than to a fifth century Catholic Mass. And we do have to acknowledge Hamilton for letting the show make a modern rock-esque sound and very modern dance styles acceptable about a time 1500 years ago. Choreographer Mandy Corbett has wrangled the ensemble well and provided a plethora of group dances that run the gamut from elegant pastoral idylls to fervently vibrant foot stomping celebrations.
So, in the final analysis, Pelagius: A New Musical is a memorable historical look at two men, who argue about free will and original sin, about faith and action, about power and persuasion, about men and women, about chastity and sensuality, and it does it by focusing on these two men who should have been friends and colleagues but who let pride betray their better Angels.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #LegacyTheatre #Pelagius)
Apropos of nothing, one of my favorite plays with a religious theme is Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., a modern retelling of the Book of Job. In this play, Job’s “comforters” are a Priest, a Marxist, and a Psychiatrist. When the Priest tells J.B. “Your sin is simple. You were born a man,” J.B. responds almost angrily, “Yours is the cruelest comfort of all – to make the creator of the universe the miscreator of mankind.” Amen!