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November 2008 Archives

November 7, 2008

Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry by Roman Feeser (TBG Theatre, New York - Directed by Linda Nelson. October 30 - November 22, 2008.)

Missa_Solemnis-cr.jpgMatt Huffman as Henry Stuart Matis - Photo courtesy of Graham T. Posner

"Missa Solemnis" (the title comes from Beethoven's orchestral work of the same name) is, indeed, a solemn play. Playwright Roman Feeser (who is not Mormon) focuses on the homophobia in the Mormon Church that eventually makes Henry Matis, a gay Mormon (and the "Henry" of the title, played well by Matt Huffman), take his own life, compelled by religious doubt and self-loathing. Feeser dutifully takes the audience through the conditions that led to this tragedy, placing the blame for Henry's death on an institution where devotion to an exclusively heterosexual definition of "family" dismisses, with savage denunciation, all those who do not fit that category. Director Linda Nelson has done her best to extract and shape whatever dramatic tension exists in the play, but she is often stymied by the undramatic structure of the script itself, which begins, in the first scene, with Henry committing his suicide, and then gives the audience what amounts to a 90-minute PowerPoint presentation of how Henry came to his end. Several moments do stand out: Henry's relationship with Todd Elliot (Jai Catalano), a lover he meets in New York, full of tenderness and humor; Henry's discussion with Bishop Rhodes (Warren Katz), where the Mormon leader shows an unexpected sympathy for Henry's plight; and, perhaps the most affecting because the most simple and wordless (in a play overstuffed with talk), the long drawn-out keening of Henry's mother Marilyn (Gail Winar) by his graveside. Lighting (Graham Posner), set (Marisa Merrigan), sound (Justin Utley), and costume (David Thompson) serve Nelson's directorial vision adequately, though Beethoven's music sounded under-volumed whenever it was used (thus losing a chance to fill the air and audience with its power) and went missing completely at the end of the play, a point when it would seem appropriate to let the music sweep the audience up in its redemptive embrace and reinforce Henry's message of tolerance. "Missa Solemnis" sits squarely in the genre of "journalistic theatre," which uses theatrical devices to teach a story that, while compelling and laudable, is not necessarily dramatic, and whose purpose, as Feeser says in an interview, is to get people to stand up and "do something" (in this case, about homophobia), an intention which often disallows saying anything ambiguous about the motives and reasons of the characters. Henry's story can move us, as it did Feeser when he first read about it, but "The Play About Henry," as a kind of "theatre of correction," is less successful in transferring to the audience the emotional punch of the original Newsweek article that inspired Feeser to write the play.

Michael Bettencourt

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