'Cenci' is 19th-century story with contemporary themes

April 21, 1995|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

The Spotlighters Theatre has a history of taking chances, and the little theater has gone where few have dared to tread in staging Percy Bysshe Shelley's 1819 drama, "The Cenci."

Scholars differ on whether this blank-verse script was intended for the stage, but ever since reading it in high school, director Bill Kamberger has been convinced it could work. Indeed, his efforts -- and those of his dedicated cast -- prove that, even on the community theater level, this romantic tragedy is stageworthy.

Shelley based his text on the true story of Beatrice Cenci, a 16th-century noblewoman who conspired to have her abusive, tyrannical father murdered. Kamberger has chosen to present the tragic story in modern dress and on a bare stage whose chief adornment is a huge floor painting of a grotesque man's head.

The stripped-down setting and familiar-looking clothing help reinforce the continuing relevance of many of the play's themes -- including parental and spousal abuse, a reluctance to intercede in domestic crimes and the ability of the deluded to commit, and excuse, heinous acts in the name of God.

But costumes aside, probably none of this would strike a pertinent chord if it weren't for several strong performances. They breathe life into what could have been a mere exercise. The most accomplished of these is Patricia Coleman's portrayal of Beatrice.

Smart, elegant and compassionate Beatrice suffers the worst of her father's abuses. Though Shelley never explicitly states the nature of these sins, Coleman's deranged, Ophelia-like appearance afterward leaves little doubt. Unlike Ophelia, however, Beatrice returns to her senses, convinced that when society's laws fail, justice must be sought elsewhere.

J. R. Lyston is also effective in his depiction of her father, evil Count Cenci. The extent of Cenci's malevolence is exemplified in the banquet scene in which he joyously proclaims that God must be on his side since He answered his prayers by bringing about the deaths of two of his sons. Such a one-dimensional villain could easily seem ludicrous, but Lyston instead accomplishes the difficult task of making Cenci appear dangerous.

A horror story of these immense dimensions requires restrained performances to keep the tone in check. Scott Knox, as the weak-spirited cardinal, and young Andrew Cruttenden, as Beatrice's youngest brother, both fare well in this respect. But Dickens Warfield, as Cenci's gentle second wife, and Rick Clark, as his older son Giacomo, veer toward the melodramatic.

As duplicitous Father Orsino, Mark Williams has perhaps the trickiest assignment, and director Kamberger's interpretation makes it trickier still. In love with Beatrice, Orsino must convince her that he is her protector, while making it clear to the audience that his own interests are all he truly has at heart. Extrapolating from Shelley's own sexual history, Kamberger heightens the stakes by graphically suggesting that Orsino also has a romantic interest in Beatrice's brother, Giacomo. Williams conveys his character's venal, opportunistic nature by distancing himself somewhat -- a choice that is logical but not entirely satisfactory from a dramatic standpoint.

In his extensive program notes, Kamberger explains that Shelley initially suggested the Cenci story as a subject for his wife, Mary, the author of "Frankenstein." The play the poet wrote, however, shows that people can be more monstrous than any artificial monster. It's a far scarier theme, and one that reaches across the centuries to our own time in this production.

"The Cenci"

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through May 7

Tickets: $8 and $9

Call: (410) 752-1225


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