T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, on stage at Compass Rose Theater, is a poetic drama about the assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket (Charles Matheny) in Canterbury circa 1170. Director Lucinda Merry-Browne teams with Set Designer Joe Powell, Sr., Lighting Designer Ashley Swiger, and Costume Designer Renee Vergauwen, to give Eliot’s play a contemporary feel. The production as a whole comes across as a symbolic and religious odyssey. Eliot drew on the writings of Edward Grim, a clerk who actually witnessed the event.
This show opens with a chorus of the women of Canterbury that includes Nancy Linden, Ali Evarts, Liza Skinner, Eliza Geib, McKenzie Vergauwen, and Chelsea Tuffy. Dressed in today’s style comprised of jeans, long skirts, jackets, leggings, and simple tops, the chorus enters on a reconfigured set from previous productions (Cats). Two balconies opposing each other along with stairs that flank the audience, the space is fully used that creates a larger-than-life and foreboding mood. Adding to the set design is the brilliant cathedral arched window with the gold cross coupled with magnificent lighting that represents stained glass. The simplicity of it all is quite distinctive and effective.
The chorus’ verses are both strong and rhythmic which is also telling of a more natural and somewhat graphic world. Additionally, these women are revealing with their anguished facial expressions and their commanding movements. The direction with the chorus is well-choreographed, keeping them in sync. And even though each woman has solo lines, they do not upstage each other and manage to be individuals within a cohesive unit.
Former Chancellor to King Henry II, Archbishop Thomas Becket (Charles Matheny) is estranged from the monarch as he returns to the Cathedral after a 7 year absence. Matheny is stellar in this role especially when he delivers an incredibly moving sermon at the Christmas morning service scene. Knowing his impending fate, Becket is confronted by the four knights/tempters:
Knight one/Tempter (Ryan Dalusung) enters in what appears to be a vile, evil entity dressed in his black leather jacket and his ensemble is as dark and slick as he. Spewing lines of “gaiety in the spring, in the orchard…” he suggests the prospect of physical safety. But his most masterful mind speaks of “…pleasures of higher vices, to be paid at higher prices.” It is here a hidden truth about the Archbishop is revealed.
Knight two/Tempter (J. Hayes Biche) donning a well-tailored suit is tall and bearded and is eloquent, appearing to be elegant but he taunts the Archbishop withoffers temporal power through negation of spiritual authority. offers worldly power through negation of spiritual authority. This character seems to represent a wheeler-and-dealer in relation to high-priced materialism that smiles to one’s face but easily puts a knife in one’s back. Biche doubles as a messenger breaks the news of Thomas’ arrival to Canterbury.
Knight three/Tempter (Christopher Williams) is not a traveler nor a politician but a burly Englishman that comes across as gentle and honest countryman. Yet heoffers the support of a faction wishing to overthrow the throne. He proposes to Becket support to the party wishing to overthrow the throne. He too wears a dark and finely tailored suit.
Knight four/Tempter (Ray Schultz) is the grittiest of the four knights/tempters in his pleather pants, silk purple vest, tie and black shirt. He urges Thomas to seek the glory of martyrdom and eternal glorymartyrdom.
Priests of the cathedral are played by Thomas Peter and Thomas Beheler. Peter is quite charismatic whereas Beheler is wonderful with his boyish-charm. Both wish to protect Archbishop Becket for they have a great respect for him and also fear for his life. But as they bar the doors to save him, he says to open them for he knows his destiny.
Credit also goes to Liz Rankin as the Stage Manager, Mary Ruth Cowgill for Props & Production Volunteer, and Master Electrician is Zack Riviere.
T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral certainly provokes such themes in relation to earthly existence or accepting one’s fate and transitioning into a more spiritual life.
Compass Rose’s production is powerful with amazing performances by a cast that becomes emotionally tied to their characters.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission
Murder in the Cathedral plays through March 8, 2015 at Compass Rose Theater – 49 Spa Road, in Annapolis, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.