A dissection of the complex tangle of politics, history and art, alongside and intermingled with a veritable census survey of world refugees, David Edgar’s “Pentecost” is a play with a lot on its mind. The Evidence Room, perhaps the hottest L.A. theater company of the moment, proves up to the task of taking it on, with artistic director Bart DeLorenzo staging this big work with a consistently good — and did I mention big? — ensemble of 23. There’s a seriousness at work here that’s not just admirable but genuinely compelling, with the actors keeping the intensity level of Edgar’s broad-ranging arguments high throughout.
Brit Edgar is best known for his Tony-winning adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby.” Edgar wrote “Pentecost” in the mid-’90s, in the midst of the immediate post-Cold War era, and it’s a fascinating exploration of all the changes occurring in Eastern Europe at the time, the blunt collision of worldviews.
The play takes place in a church in an unnamed Eastern European country that is emerging from four decades of communist control. Into this building Gabriella Pecs (Colleen Wainwright), a curator from the not-world-renowned National Museum, brings an English art historian, Oliver Davenport (Don Oscar Smith), to evaluate a find. Behind a brick facade, buried under centuries of history, Pecs has uncovered what seems to be a 12th century painting. If the timing turns out to be accurate, then it’s clear that the painting, in a style thought unimaginable before Giotto in the late 13th century, could revolutionize art history, and with it our understanding of the history of Western thought.
The peeling away of this painting is the main visual motif at work, reflecting the never-ending layers of history and politics and all other sorts of cultural considerations the play unveils. Set designer Jason Adams has done a truly remarkable job, allowing the painting to seem in a very different state of repair in every scene, with only quick blackouts to make the changes. The Evidence Room’s warehouse-ish space serves nicely as this old church, with the audience lined up on the two long sides of the room and the action given ample space in between.
For the first act, the action is primarily debate. Folks enter, all with different agendas relating to the painting, opening up new topics of argument. There’s the cultural minister (Jeliaz Drent); competing priests, one Catholic (Michael Louden), one Orthodox (Jay Harik); an American art historian (Leo Marks), who resists Davenport and Pecs’ efforts to remove the painting from the church; and a magistrate (Janellen Steininger) who holds a hearing on the matter, in which the various debates over the authenticity and future of the painting reach a crescendo.
These debates, rich and ever-evolving, actually get shuffled off to the side as the play takes an abrupt turn when a group of stateless refugees lays siege to the church and takes hostages. The arguments over art history and what should happen to the painting transform into arguments about the status of refugees all over the globe, and ultimately, believe it or not, all of this comes together in a well devised and well earned ending.
Given the density of all this, DeLorenzo’s focus on basic clarity is a smart one. And you know he’s found the right unadorned style for it when you don’t blink at Edgar’s blatant contrivances — stateless refugees don’t really travel together as a team, at least certainly not so neatly representing every example of their ilk. The second act includes the various refugees stepping forward and telling national stories, dancing, all while the art historian/hostages argue with the siege’s Palestinian leader (Lauren Campedelli). It’s realistically played, but, despite strikingly bringing to mind the recent Church of the Nativity siege in the Middle East, it’s less about realness and more about ideas, about the clash of East and West.
American actors are wont to turn dialogue laced with political opinion into soap-box tirades, and that tendency certainly emerges here. The actors often spit out their points of view, hammering rather than persuading their audience. But they manage to make all this come off more as passionate commitment than sheer shrillness, and overall the performances here are convincing. Wainwright as the stubborn Pecs, Smith as the often befuddled Davenport and Marks as the haughty American form the central triumvirate, and they provide a nice, varied mix of tone and delivery. The ensemble’s employment of accents is quite strong.
Sometimes DeLorenzo allows too much to be going on throughout the space, with peripheral stuff taking focus away from the argument of the moment. And there are other quibbles one can make here and there. But this is a show that has so much going for it that its flaws get buried by the sheer force of its ambition and intelligence.