The following review of The Pope and the Witch was printed in
The Yale Herald on October 31, 1996. At that time, the director
was named "Stephan Genn", and that is the name used in the review. He
has subsquently married, and in a slight reversal of tradition, has taken his
wife's surname. He is now named "Stephan Golux".
From The Yale Herald - October 31, 1996
Humor (and more than a little blasphemy) blesses 'Pope'By Claire Lindberg
One night in college, my father and his friends allegedly counted all the jokes in the movie Airplane. Their findings: roughly 300, breaking down to about three jokes a minute. It was a foolproof system, the key to why Airplane was funny. "That way", my father explained, "Even if two of the jokes bombed, it was still a laugh a minute!"
The same principle is a big part of what makes Dario Fo's The Pope and the Witch so hilarious. The production lays on comedic convention very thick, making use of virtually every silly, screwball, and obscene gag. Some of these jokes are so old you wish they'd just bury them and be done with it, and some so corny you find yourself involuntarily groaning. But the majority are either fresh gags or well-executed versions of old standards that will keep you out of breath for most of the play's 125 minutes. Your sides will hurt. I mean it.
Dario Fo doesn't miss a trick, least of all in the basic plot structure of his play: what if the Pope suffered a nervous breakdown on the day of a major press conference and could only be cured by a feminist midwife-cum-witch doctor? What if this heathen woman infiltrated the Vatican, made it all the way to the Pope's chambers (where the holy father is suffering paranoid delusions of angry third world children storming St. Peter's Square and attacking him for banning birth control), and then proceeded to use hypnotism and African voodoo ritual to bring the pontiff to his senses? What if? Well, it'd be pretty crazy, wouldn't you think?
Add to this a Vatican Chief of Security with Mafia ties and an accent straight out of GoodFellas, a Vatican press officer who resembles a movie producer more than a monsignor, a nun with titillating sadomasochistic fantasies, three heroin addicts, an exploding parakeet, and a Pope dummy, and you've got a recipe for comedy.
As Elisa Moradoni, the witch of the play's title, Amy Cronise, DRA '97, rules the show, holding the Vatican and the audience completely in her power. She is a modern witch, not the old Strega Nona figure the title might suggest: no black hat, broom, or warts here. Elisa is more of a '90s realist than occult spellcaster. Bursting the Vatican's Catholic idealism with her gravelly zingers, standing up to the bishops' reactionary views, she is open-mindedness and practicality taken to the extreme, and her guiding principle seems to be the morality of necessity. She is willing to do whatever works in a given situation, whether it means indulging the Pope's paranoid delusions about rabid orphans, or giving the heroin addicts in the clinic she runs the necessary hit to keep them off the streets.
Cronise's performance is fantastic, the best thing in a production full of good things. Especially impressive is her movement and physicality, which manage to capture both the fluidity of a woman absolutely comfortable in her own skin, with the rapid rhythm of one who is always getting things done. Cronise mesmerizes, with both body and voice, and provides the necessary center to the crazy comic chaos of the play. She is partnered not quite as evenly by Paul Niebanck, DRA '97, the Jerry Lewis of Holy Fathers. Niebanck's Pope is when freaking out; his character is less believable when he progresses from paranoid delusions into the realm of papal dignity. However, his mockery of the dithering Church of England ("You can pray if you like, but you don't HAVE to--cup of tea anyone? Biscuit?") is one of the funniest moments in the show.
Director Stephan Genn has done an intelligent job of mixing the rhetoric and slapstick in a way that allows the script's darker points to really hit home. This could easily have become a show mired in comic choreography, but Genn manages to pace the bits so that they move the script along and don't get in the way. He has also managed to ground these sometimes cartoon-like characters in reality, successfully avoiding the cardboard morality play this could have become. We empathize with Elisa and believe the Pope's transformation.
The one place the production occasionally falls short is in the physical comedy, which at times was too stiff and slow to be believable. However, with somewhere between 40 and 400 pieces of fight and slapstick choreography, the number of times the actors do manage to flip, lift, smack, and kick one another successfully is truly impressive.
The blasphemy aspect of the production adds another layer of prickly humor, a layer I'll admit was largely lost on me, as I'm not Catholic or particularly religious in any way. But I could see it work on my Catholic friend, who kept laughing and quickly chastising herself in a personal confession that got worse as the play went on. If you are Catholic, watch out--the barbs in the play consistently hit home. Though it may make the script more uncomfortable, it will also probably make it funnier than for us agnostics.
The Pope and the Witch may be a laugh a minute, but in manages to accomplish something most screwball comedies cannot. The humor of the action on the stage actually highlights the intelligence of the script, illuminating the points about reformation of the Catholic church, rather than obscuring them. Dario Fo uses humor to heighten, rather than diffuse, the explosiveness of his subject matter, and for this he deserves much praise.