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A culture clash in 'Pentecost'

British playwright David Edgar applies humor and satire to the politics of art, academia and nationalism.

June 09, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — "Pentecost," at the Old Globe, is a play of politics and ideas. The politics are post-Cold War turbulent; the ideas are challenging and disturbing. So don't expect to leave whistling a theme song, and be prepared to have your political preconceptions kicked in the knee.

Touched with bitter humor and some anti-academic and anti-cleric satire, "Pentecost," by British playwright David Edgar, takes us to a generic Eastern European country soon after the fall of Communism, the end of four decades in which citizens were forced to be either "hangman, victim or accomplice."

The play has only one set, an abandoned church with a tall ceiling and an al fresco painting on one wall that may, or may not, be a major artistic discovery. The wall and the painting are the two dominant characters of the play.

A stuffy British academic, played to pedantic perfection by Michael Santo, and the ambitious curator of the local art museum, Mariana Dimitrova, come to believe the painting may be the precursor to Giotto's "The Lamentation of Christ" and thus an enormous find.

Enter a brash American art historian who abhors the idea of "restoring" the painting so that it can be lifted from the wall and spirited away to a museum as a draw for tourists. Elijah Alexander plays the historian in the manner of Jeff Goldblum in "Jurassic Park": fast-talking, cocksure, alternately charismatic and annoying.

Although her accent can be distracting, Dimitrova is a joy as the gritty Gabriella Pecs, who has little use for the idea of the sanctity of art. "If Leonardo were alive today, he would be doing TV commercials for Pizza Hut," she says.

And Charles Daniel Sandoval, who plays the Led Zeppelin-loving minister of culture, nearly steals every scene he is in.

Just when "Pentecost" seems to be settling in as a quick-witted sendup of art and faculty politics, a motley collection of heavily armed refugees bursts in, on the run from the police who want to deport them. They take prisoners and start issuing demands for asylum.

Each has a story of woe: Bosnian, Ukrainian, Afghan, gypsy, Palestinian, Kuwaiti, Azerbaijani and Mozambican.

Their stories and their grievances against history -- told in song and dance -- are what give "Pentecost" its power and lead to a surprising, even shocking, conclusion. Among the refugees, Lauren Campedelli is wonderfully belligerent and wholly believable as the ringleader, Yasmin.

Written in 1994, the play seems to foreshadow two hostage dramas from last year: the violent takeover of a Moscow theater by Chechen rebels and the siege at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The politics of "Pentecost" are comfortably (or annoyingly, depending on your view) left wing.

The United States comes across as a self-absorbed, narrow-minded superpower, unconcerned with the world's teeming masses of refugees and stateless persons.

The world, one refugee suggests, is more than just a place for "Star Trek" reruns.



Where: Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 2 p.m.

Ends: July 5

Price: (619) 239-2255

Contact: $19-$50

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

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