Review: ‘Guilt, an opera without music’ at Scena Theatre

With its teasing, click-bait provocative subtitling, “an opera without music,” John Shand’s Guilt, having its world premiere by DC’s Scena Theatre, is a meaty, passionately provoking tale.

Oscar Ceville, John Geoffrion, and Nanna Ingvarsson. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

Overall, Shand’s Guilt is a rare pearl; an admirable, sophisticated, verse-laden text, that has been made into a fine production under the sharp-edged direction and even sharper-eyed casting of Robert McNamara. Guilt has a script built upon actions that take place in an era when truth and fact were built on quicksand or religious dogma. (No, not today in these times when everyone has their versions of the truth.) But rather, early 17th century France with stakes particularly high for anyone on a losing side of intricate cultural and gender-based wars.

On its surface, Guilt is a knotty piece about a carefree, careless, Casanova-of-a-priest who finds celibacy just too constraining a lifestyle. He must pay a price for actualizing that notion. There is also plenty of collateral damage to those who find themselves under his spell who must answer for themselves: Was the priest a man or a witch? Of interest, Guilt is based on historical events centered upon a philandering 17th-century priest living in France named Urbain Grandier (1590-1634).

Scena Theatre’s production of Guilt soars beyond big-emotion melodrama (and without the beauty and power of operatic music) whenever Nanna Ingvarsson (as a cloistered, tough-minded, seemingly sexually-repressed nun) and Danielle Davy (an at-first naïve, fragile young woman cast aside by her own father) appear. Ingvarsson and Davy turn what could have been an over-the-top, time-period specific melodrama into a potent production about women finding their way clear through a maelstrom of spiritual, secular, and personal conflicts. (It is not part of DC Women’s Voices Theater Festival.)

Danielle Davy and Nanna Ingvarsson. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

With total abandon, both Ingvarsson and Davy explore the inner worlds of characters who live in a time when women had no agency and were objects to be closeted away. Ingvarsson and Davy portray characters, who each in her own way wants to be loved and touched. To live free, with passion, and even experience a different kind of rapture.  They want to burn with life in the here and now. As the drama progresses, both nun and the young woman want lives far from boredom. Each in her own way is besotted by the Casanova-like priest named Grandier played by Oscar Ceville as a convincing, not amiable character that takes him from the epitome of a misogynist to moments of genuine sympathy for what befalls him.

Other Guilt characters are played with satisfaction by Ron Litman (as a charmless father, way too late to understand his daughter’s needs and desires) and John Geoffrion as Surin, a sinister, revenge-seeking priest who enjoys causing pain and suffering to others.

Now, do be aware that Guilt is far from naturalistic in outlook or acting style, with its moments of hysterical physical and verbal projections. The acting can be described as theatrically exaggerated, though there are no deep seats to reach in the confines of the intimate Atlas Lab venue. With a two-hour-plus running time, pacing can drag one moment or overplay bombast the next. But dull it is not. When characters speak or move as if possessed, struggling mightily as if needing an exorcism or other means of physical satisfaction and emotional relief, the moments are jaw-dropping.

Performed in one of the Atlas Labs, seating is limited. The set design by Eva Petric takes advantage of the Lab’s intimacy to meet the play’s needs. There are some chairs on set and a Rubik’s Cube-like movable centerpiece device that provides moods for each different scene. (The night I saw the production, the actors struggled with the device’s three movable pieces, though I would expect this will become smoother deeper into the run.) Costumes (also by Petric) are powerful visual depictions of each character, changing as a character journeyed along in self-discovery. Jonathan Alexander’s lighting design was psychologically powerful when shades of a blood red were brought to bear upon the set design. Fighting and movements were choreographed by Paul Gallagher, no easy task in such close quarters.

Guilt is ultimately a morality piece about adults with private and public lives. It raises issues of celibacy and sexuality, agency and male supremacy, and, of course, the existence of God and personal will. It delves deep into intolerance. The audience decides for itself the what it thinks about guilt , innocence, and even the value of confession.

Shand’s Guilt left me absorbed. But it will not be for everyone with its verse-laden dialogue and its non-naturalistic acting.

But oh, the language Shand provides his characters. Here are some words that had me gasp when spoken by Ingvarsson in her role as a nun. How could there ever be chaste kisses after hearing these worlds spoken by a voice from God, like Ingvarsson’s?

Oscar Ceville and Nanna Ingvarsson. Photo by Jae Yi Photography.

I could eat his voice, and chew on every word;

eat his voice and devour his lips;

roll his voice around in my mouth,

roll it around with my tongue;

chew every word a hundred times,

and then a hundred more;

devour each syllable and vowel

of his wine-sweet voice,

and suck dry the lips that framed it;

suck the moisture from each sound,

then wet them with my tongue,

and chew and chew them,

and roll them around in my mouth.

And when I can bear the bliss no more,

let them slip, slip one at a time,

one at a time, slip down my throat.

Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes with one 10-minute intermission.

Guilt plays through February 4, 2018, at Scena Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street, NE, in Washington, DC. 20002, For tickets, buy them at the door or purchase them online.


 Magic Time!: ‘Guilt’ at Scena Theatre by John Stoltenberg


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