Review of "God's Fool": a holy poet who sings and beats

The life of Saint Francis of Assisi was dramatic. The child of a wealthy Italian merchant, he had a playboy youth in the 12th century, ...


The life of Saint Francis of Assisi was dramatic. The child of a wealthy Italian merchant, he had a playboy youth in the 12th century, went to war and spent a year in captivity. He had mystical visions, stole from his disapproving father to give to the church, and dedicated himself to a life of poverty in imitation of Christ, founding a religious order. He saw God in nature, thanking the sun, preaching to the birds – setting an example of equality and ecology followed by many, including the current pope.

Very little of this drama fits into “God’s Fool“, the dance theater work on Francis which opened Thursday at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater. And although it was conceived and directed by Martha Clarke, the creator of many acclaimed dance plays, “God’s Fool” contains very little dance theater.

Instead, Francis (Patrick Andrews) and his followers mostly stroll around a gravel-strewn stage dressed in brethren’s robes, talking about God and faith. When in doubt, they sing.

This is not a problem in itself, since the singing, mostly unaccompanied, is excellent. Arranged and directed by Arthur Solari, it helps establish the world from the start, as the masked cast enters intoning an Easter Vigil. And the frequent retreat into the song gives the impression of a confused herd clinging to brotherhood.

But the vocals contribute to some of the period and gender confusion in the series. The selections deviate from the Francois era towards a witty African-American and a bit of Gustav Mahler. When Francis steps into a Broadway-style duet of the American folk song “Wayfaring Stranger” with Clare, his herd wife, we’re definitely not in Assisi anymore.

Andrews’ Francis is all-American, a lost boy. In a way, it wouldn’t seem out of place in a play by David Mamet or perhaps “Rent”. He has great mood swings, laughs hysterically, cries when necessary, rushes into nature like a Beat poet. The saint must have been a disruptive and confusing figure, but when Francis’ exasperated father calls him a tramp and a brat, it seems too accurate.

This central performance breaks with Fanny Howe’s poetic text. The scenario is stripped down, alternating soliloquies and scenes which are not naturalistic dialogues but exchanges of fragments. A rep goes like this:

Francis: Beat me Leo.
Leo: I can’t beat you Francis.
Luca: You should join the circus, Francis.
Fran├žois: I should die.

The delivery makes this exchange and many similar exchanges unintentionally comical. Veteran performance artist John Kelly, playing a red-horned devil who accompanies Francis and his followers, brings an intentional touch of comedy and commedia dell’arte. But neither Kelly nor the oversized animal heads (Margie Jervis masks) nor the movement between scenes (everyone being blown by the wind or carrying Francis in the air) compensates enough to give the production the weirdness and the wonder it needs.

And so, while some of the dramatic incidents of Francis’ life are covered – his father’s abuse, the preaching to birds, the appearance of stigmata and, more audaciously, his kissing of Claire and the devil – next to nothing appear convincing or illuminating.

What resonates with the song is something unsung but latent in Howe’s words: “revelations of a world inches from our senses, like scents you cannot see, scents you grab from a maypole”. What “God’s Fool” Could Have Revealed.

God’s Fool

Through July 2 at the Ellen Stewart Theater; lamama.org.

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