"The Plaie Called Corpus Christi" sounds suspiciously like so much academic calisthenics: a three-year cycle of biblical plays written in Middle English and produced by the UC Irvine Focused Research Project in Medieval Theatre Studies. Even the title almost creaks.
But someone forgot to tell director Robert Cohen and dramaturge Edgar Schell that these 600-year-old plays were dry historical artifacts. And Cohen certainly forgot to mention it to his cast, which wades fearlessly into the rhymed text with conviction and passion.
The happy result is living, breathing theater rather than a museum curiosity, as UC Irvine concludes its final chapter of "The Plaie Called Corpus Christi" this week with "The Passion," "The Resurrection" and "The Judgement."
The story may be familiar, but the telling is fresh. There is an urgency behind the words; after all, the story of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection is probably the original English-language message play. But there is more than just religious message here. As in last year's production chronicling the Nativity, the characters are not cardboard cutouts but real people facing tough choices.
There is also spectacle--and plenty of it--as heaven and hell wage a battle for the souls of mankind. Red smoke billows up from hell, beckoning tormented lost souls to join them. Overhead, white light bathes God and his angels in their state of eternal bliss. Trap doors and platforms are hidden in the stage. Earthquakes rumble. Mountains move. The staging is exciting, and the visual impact is heightened by dramatic lighting designed by Michael Sundquist.
Certainly, there are thematic resonances here for contemporary times. Spiritual waffling, moral expediency, political pressure groups, cover-ups and payoffs all figure in the story of Christ's last days. But what lingers is the rich historical perspective that this cycle offers, with its literate and inquisitive exploration of the genesis of English-language theater.
The Corpus Christi plays were originally performed from the 14th to the 16th centuries, borrowing from the pageant and spectacle of the Roman Catholic liturgy. The works took Bible stories out of the church and into the English countryside, dramatized for villagers and peasants to hear in their native tongue.
The text, adapted from the original Middle English by Schell for this production, is alternately powerful and beautiful, although the rhymed language does require careful concentration. Still, it is fascinating to see what preceded Shakespeare--or Sam Shepard, for that matter.
The cast, primarily students, works hard to ensure that these biblical figures are more than wooden saints and sinners. Philip Thompson is moving as Jesus, with silences that speak as eloquently as his words. Steven Benson is neatly self-satisfied as Pilate, searching for a moral loophole while lobbyists turn the political screws to get Christ convicted. There is humor here as well, deftly delivered by Ron Hastings as a messenger on horseback and later as a messenger from hell as the production moves into the dark waters of judgment.
Pre-show entertainment featuring medieval food, drink and song outside the stage door helps establish the mood, which carries into the high, dark space surrounding the wooden platform stage.