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‘Pope’ goes to the absurd

Third-world children, manic media, healer make for eventful day for pontiff

“The Pope and The Witch,” a satirical play about the Catholic Church, is being produced at the Rodey Theatre by the UNM Department of Theatre and Dance.

Written by Nobel Prize-winning Italian playwright/actor Dario Fo, the play makes fun of anything that crosses its path, including the Pope, the mafia and new-age juju — all fertile fields for satire.

As the play begins, The Pope and his staff are in a crisis. Thousands of third-world children have been brought to the Vatican. A mob of them waits outside for an audience. The Pope is highly paranoid and fears that the children — mostly orphans — will be used as evidence in support of the widely spreading opinion that birth control can, in many cases, be beneficial. It is a papal emergency of the highest magnitude.

For the first time in history, The Pope, against the wishes of his handlers, has consented to do a press conference. Downstairs, the hall is filled with throngs of television cameras and reporters who have been kept waiting for a long time.

The Pope, played by student and actor/playwright Ross Kelly, cracks under the pressure and suffers a hysterical Woody Allen-style nervous breakdown. The Healer, played by Kate Schroeder, is brought in to resuscitate him.

The Healer turns out to be the smartest character in the play — and along with her savvy, she’s endowed with extrasensory powers and a more liberal political leaning.

The play gets wilder from that point.

Director Kristen Loree said Fo is one of her favorite playwrights.

“He’s funny and he has something to say,” Loree said. “He’s dealing with what he believes are ridiculous ideas the church manifests.”

She said her favorite thing about the play is its absurdity. And the play is to the point of being wacky, but it is put to good use. The absurdity is somewhat in the vein of Aristophanes’ satire, with a trace of Woody Allen’s hilarious neuroses, Steve Martin’s fearless panache and even a touch of Lenny Bruce’s ruthlessness when it comes to using potentially dangerous content to get a laugh while making a point that some people might not want to see.

At one point in the first act, The Pope is hung from a chandelier while The Healer conducts a pagan ceremony — using candles, incense and chanting — to cure his ailments. Suddenly The Pope’s press attachÇ comes in, frantic to the point of bursting a blood vessel, and announces that it is privy to a rumor that the healer is a witch.

“I was starting to feel better …” says The Pope. “Now suddenly I feel as if they’re giving me an enema with quick-dry concrete.”

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The production’s set design, which was created by John Malolepsy, uses severe angles and forced-perspective techniques to achieve a striking effect, giving the inner sanctums of the Vatican an authoritarian presence within the mind-spinning context of the script.

Loree said the cast and crew have been working hard on the production and the long hours are paying off.

“These actors just take what I say and run with it like a hundred miles,” she said. “The talent level is enormous.”

Loree received a bachelor’s degree from UNM and an MFA in acting from New York University. She said she first came into contact with the writings of Fo while at NYU. She works as a staff instructor for the UNM Department of Theatre and Dance and is a member of the acclaimed Riverside Ensemble.

“The Pope and The Witch” opens Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Rodey Theatre in the Fine Arts building. It will be performed with a deaf-interpreter Saturday at 2 p.m. Sunday’s performance starts at 7:30 p.m.

The play will also run next weekend from April 26 through 28 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 for general admission and $6 for students, faculty, staff and seniors, and are available at any outlet or by calling the UNM ticket office at 277-4569.

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