Sapientia revived after 900 years

Scapegoat Carnivale offers a fresh version of the 10th century passion play

By Byron Toben

Scapegoat Carnivale does it again.

This local theatre company often attacks old plays with a modern sensibility. Here they have drawn on a passion play by the 10th century author Hroswitha of Gandersheim. That lady is history’s first female playwright.

The Characters include a devout Christian mother, Sapientia (Alison Darcy) who has three young daughters of tender age (all played by Alexandra Petrachuk). They now live in the realm of Emperor Hadrian (Robert Leveroos) who is advised by his henchman, Antiochus (Paul Van Dyck).

Sapientia - WestmountMag.caAntiochus advises Hadrian that Sapientia is undermining the kingdom by not worshipping the Gods (plural), but insists on following a God (single).

Finding Sapientia resolute, Hadrian is urged by Antiochus to convince the daughters instead.

Alas each is equally resolute and determined to ignore torture or death to reach the kingdom of the Christian god. This leads to increasingly grisly punishment and finally the trio joyously embracing death, one after the other.

Scapegoat’s clever staging of all this involves the clever use of household items – flashlight, coffee pot, tea cups, a grater, waffle iron and the like.

Apparently, this use of objects was the inspiration of director Mia van Leeuwen.

To me, the whole was a sort of Theatre of the Absurd meets Grand Guignole. Indeed at one point, Sapientia launches into a discussion of math and numbers reminiscent of Ionescu’s Les Chaises.

Indeed, at a talk back after the show, called Women and Violence, I found myself drifting from this important announced aspect by considering the theatrical antecedents and later echoes. (The panel contained Imago theatre head Micheline Chevrier who had directed Colleen Murphy’s disturbing Pig Girl about the Pickton murders at the Centaur in 2010.)

Before Hroswitha

441 BC
Of course, Antigone by Sophocles springs to mind. Her stubbornness against the ruler Creon over the burial of her brother pitted the individual against the tyrannical state.

431 BC
Some intonations of Medea by Euripides as well, although there the poisoned infanticides are motivated by spite and revenge.

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After Hroswitha

The plot of three sisters recurs in:

King Lear by Shakespeare. Two of the three – Goneril and Regan are mean ladies, popping out eyes and the like – while the nice Cordelia joins the many Shakespearian characters dead in the final act.

Three Sisters by Chekov. Olga, Masha and Irina dream of moving to Moscow but never get to. Anyway, rural boredom beats being tortured for pie in the sky.

Androcles and the Lion by GB Shaw. This retelling of Aesop’s ancient fable brings us back to Hroswitha.

On suffering death for principle:

The beautiful slave girl Lavinia is urged her captor to save herself simply by offering some incense to an idol to which she replies, “I do not want to live in a society where a pinch of incense should make a difference”.

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On the counter productiveness of killing:

In Shaw’s preface, he posits the keeper of the games complaining that he is running out of Christians to feed the lions, to which Caesar replies, “For every Christian eaten by a lion, two in the audience, impressed by their courage, convert. Truth be told, I am doing more to propagate the faith than St. Peter.”

A nod to Aphra Behn

While Hroswitha, recently championed by the Guerilla Girls, may be the first female playwright, the first one writing in English was the 16th century Apra Behn, who has been having a modest revival of late. Mr Van Dyck adapted and directed her slave tale Oroonoko at the MAI in 2013 and the National Theatre School mounted her The Rover last winter.

Hard core theatre enthusiasts should hope for a remount of this historic and innovative show.

Sapientia ran at the Mainline until August 25.
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Images: Patrick Andrew Boivin

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Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club.

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