David Edgar’s overwritten and overwrought antiwar drama “Pentecost” is one holy mess. But that’s no matter: With its high-minded political views, environmental staging and cast of thousands (well, at least 20), the ensembler is made to order for a resident company like the Barrow Group to open its new venue. (For same reasons, the agit-prop play would be a good fit for regional rep and university theaters.) The lengthy, almost incomprehensible debate on pre-Renaissance art that gives the political material its cultural hook is a brain drain, but once the show declares itself an international hostage thriller, the stuffy proceedings turn into a lively environmental event.
After finally moving into a theater to call its own, the Barrow Group’s first artistic act was to trash it — or, to be technical, to transform both stage and auditorium of the modest 99-seat house into an abandoned Romanesque church in some depressed Eastern European country. In Markas Henry’s spare design and in the shadows of Robert Cangemi’s lighting, this ancient place of worship is a stripped-down shell, devoid of ornamentation except for a faded fresco over the main altar.
Although the painting is too godawful ugly to pass muster as a Byzantine masterpiece to rival the work of Giotto, two foreign art historians and a local museum curator indulge in long, sober discussions about the surpassing beauty of the piece and its seminal influence on Renaissance aesthetics. (“The starting pistol for the next 600 years,” as the British art historian puts it to the Slavic museum curator. “The frontier between the medieval and the modern world.”)
According to Edgar’s theories of ars politica, the fresco was the work of a local artist inspired by the religious art of Serbia, Macedonia and Constantinople — making an Arab the father of the Renaissance of the Western world.
Try as they might, the principal thesps fail to make riveting drama of their academic recitations on the cultural history of the Balkans. Aussie actor Marc Aden Gray is all boyish earnestness as a Brit art maven who views the fresco as an affirmation that culture is the common language of human brotherhood.
Barrow Group stalwart Stephen Singer goes for brainy bluster as an American art expert who appreciates the irony of waging war over objects of art that transcend national boundaries.
Although Oksana Lada (“The Sopranos”) has an Isabella Rossellini-esque air of serene elegance appropriate to an art curator who sees herself as the guardian of her cultural heritage, her command of English is imperfect beyond the point of being charming.
At least they all make an attempt to follow the vector of the convoluted theories advanced in Edgar’s play, written in response to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and premiered at Stratford in a 1994 RSC production (with subsequent productions at Yale Rep, Berkeley Rep, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and San Diego’s Old Globe). In its original time frame, the drama spoke to the idealistic visions of pan-European community on the part of newly liberated communist nations. Ten years on, its dreamy notions of open-border immigration and common-ground culturalism seem sadly naive and simplistic.
Not that Edgar (“The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby”) really thought it through in the first place — as becomes apparent once a ragged army of political asylum-seekers storms the ancient church and take the eggheads hostage. Although scribe takes care to put an international face on this desperate tribe (you’ve got your Palestinian and your Russian and your Kurd, not to mention a Sri Lankan, a Mozambican and a family of Bosnian Gypsies), these superficially drawn figures come straight from Central Casting with their colorful ragbag costumes and interchangeable horror stories.
This doesn’t in any way discourage the secondary players from having a ball with their assignments. Fanning out through the auditorium like a rowdy high school class on a museum field trip, they wave their guns and chew their lines with enthusiastic dedication to their lost cause.
The universal cultural myth that eventually emerges from this polyglot of tongues might not convince auds to throw open their homes and hand over the keys to the car, but it seems to give everyone a nice, warm feeling.