`Ambrosio' offers food for thought

Play: The fast-paced and intense drama about a Spanish priest's descent into madness is full of questions, but short on resolution.

February 11, 1999|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

If you're the sort who likes to leave the theater saying "Aah!," Romulus Linney's play "Ambrosio" might give you pause.

After taking in Rep Stage's expertly rendered version of Linney's tale of a 16th-century Spanish priest whose descent into evil is fueled by madness -- or perhaps by the devil himself -- my overwhelming response was"Huh?"

I like ambiguity as much as the next person, but this is a play so fraught with indeterminacy that resolution in any form is out of the question.

Fra Ambrosio is a diligent, articulate, charismatic priest whose sermons at Cordoba's cathedral on the eve of the Spanish Inquisition are wowing the faithful.

Acting on the best of motives, the priest enters a pair of relationships that will doom him.

One relationship, we assume, is with a young monk, Rosario. The other with Antonia, a precocious young woman who singles Ambrosio out as the confessor of her dreams.

Alas, lustful desires are kindled, madness is in the air, murder is in the cards, and the true nature of reality quickly becomes anybody's guess.

And as the show goes on, questions abound.

Is Ambrosio's homosexual infatuation with young Rosario consummated?

Or are the encounters merely the shadowy obsessions of a tormented priest?

And what is driving the priest over the edge? His nascent bisexuality?

Or is he being prodded by Satan, taking human form as Don Pedro, the wealthy landowner who seeks to marry Antonia?

Don't expect any answers, but the play's intensity level should have you squirming in your seat more than once.

While I'm not sure the playwright really has all that much to tell us about life's great metaphysical questions, he has packed this play with many viscerally exciting moments. .

The pacing will leave audience members breathless.

"Ambrosio" hurtles forward with stunning speed in short, power-packed vignettes that keep both the action and the emotions hopping. Theater-lovers with short attention spans shouldn't hesitate for a moment -- this one's for you.

Artistically, the only weak spot in the production is the noisy, repetitious musical score that sounds as though it was lifted from a Transylvanian soap opera.

Nigel Reed is extraordinary as the doomed priest. Maia DeSanti is heart-rending as poor Antonia, the innocent intellectual girl so in need of Ambrosio's understanding. And I applaud Carter Jahncke's deft evocation of Machiavellian malevolence as Don Pedro; he produced the very kind of slickster I'd expect to encounter were I to traverse the road to hell.

The rest of the cast is fine, especially Jeff Baker as the honest, scrupulously fair Grand Inquisitor. (Yes, for most of the play the man charged with rounding up, torturing and killing heretics turns out to be the most principled man on the stage.)

Such a bizarre play! But one eminently worth seeing in this Rep Stage incarnation.

"Ambrosio" plays weekends at the Theatre Outback on the campus of Howard Community College through Feb. 28. Call 410-772-4900 for tickets.

Pub Date: 2/11/99

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