St. Matthew Passion

Any corps of actors that can cause a hush to fall upon its audience, such that the angel of silence is not just flying by but is still hovering, must, as they say, be doing something right. For it to happen in the ambit of a sacred holiday, and be done in a fashion that embraces both the faithful and the secular, would be all the more notable. The which is to say that exactly that happened on Maundy Thursday, as the day is called in the liturgical calendar, when Dzieci Theatre presented a version of the St. Matthew Passion at Union Theological Seminary; the adaptation was commissioned in the first instance by nuns and is described as “a refinement of the liturgy not bound by any single religion.”

That Dzieci is influenced by the work of the late Polish innovator Jerzy Grotowski is not surprising; “dzeici” refers to children in Polish, and beyond that, Grotowski, although not to my knowledge religious, was touched by the traditions of liturgical drama (I once heard him go off on an hour-long tangent on medieval mystery and passion dramas during a directing workshop). Grotowski was no social constructionist: he embraced ritual because he believed in human universals, to the point of going on an quixotic quest for the fundamental human gesture, which he called the “Theatre of Sources.” It should not be pretended that Dzeici approaches the Grotowskian ideal of a holy theater through a monastic devotion to the art of acting by more than a baby step, but to do even that is impressive.

The tragic power of Matthew’s gospel, which even the secular must acknowledge, is realized, and the vibratory potential of the voice, which Grotowski’s technique identifies, taps, and hones, is everywhere present in the chants and incantations that, on Thursday, filled the intimate, stone space. The gestures are pared to the most basic semiotic, calling up, at the least, something at the core of the culture, if not on some level universal. Texts are spoken in both Hebrew and English; and there are no set roles, but shifting portrayals of the figures of the drama. The women’s faces, most of them framed by scarves, look cleansed and beatific, as though washed by the tautly drawn fabrics above their foreheads; the men wear brimmed hats that shade their faces, suggesting a different sort of devotion, or a degree of ambiguity. The scroll that sits center at the beginning of the ceremony is first unrolled, then read from aloud, and finally rolled again, in the eternal return of ritual, or the structure of tragedy.

Penultimately they lay that silence upon us, then lift it, and I, at least, was moved by this mostly young but aesthetically mature company. They have been doing A PASSION ACCORDING TO MATTHEW at various locations during the Easter and Passover season, of which two more are scheduled in 2014.

For more on the Dzieci Theatre, click here.