The year is 1376. Pope Gregory XI is packing his bags to move the Holy See back to Rome after seven decades in Avignon, and Europe is in the throes of chaos. In Medieval Play, Kenneth Lonergan's zany and erudite account of that turbulent era, the follies of the late 14th century are not all that unfamiliar from those of the early 21st.
Lonergan, who also directed the production at Signature Theatre, expands on this particular period of ecclesiastic history in a sort of Monty Pythonesque discourse with a bit of the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks thrown in.
The play opens with two French knights-errant, out of work during a lull in the Hundred Years War, carrying on a politico-economic discussion, disparaging the corrupt, amoral, and bloody times they live in.
The knights try to think of good things about Medieval France for which they should be grateful (clean air, stained glass) and its scientific advances (the windmill, three-field crop rotation) but keep coming back to the endless wars that plague the era. "This Hundred Years War just goes on and on," one, Sir Ralph, opines. "I wonder how long it will last," his mate, Sir Alfred, muses. It is a funny scene and sets the tone for what follows.
These two knights -- mercenaries by any other name -- are the thread that runs through Medieval Play. Sir Ralph begins to have doubts about all the pillaging, raping, and burning that has become his life's work. It is not what he envisioned when set out to become a knight. Sir Alfred takes a more practical view. "The chivalry code is all well and good if you're pulling in a decent income," he counters.
The knights are, however, ripe for recruitment when Cardinal Robert of Geneva puts together an expeditionary force to pave the way through Italy for Pope Gregory's long trek back to Rome. For all those who have been praying for the Pope to return, there are others (including his Cardinals) who want him to stay in France and party.
Among the entourage is a slight Neapolitan lawyer named Bartolomeo Prignano, a bureaucrat in the Curia who is the butt of the cardinals' jokes, and Catherine Benincasa, a sort of mystic maiden who hears voices and has come all the way from Siena to bully the Pope into returning the papacy to Italy.
It should be noted that Lonergan is scrupulous in historic accuracy. The play is based on true events, including the massacre at Cesena, and real people, down to the character of Dietrich, Prignano's secretary, a cameo delightfully played by Kevin Geer.
Just how much of all that Catholic history, however entertainingly told, can hold the interest of a lay audience is another question. There are times when Medieval Play becomes mired in detail that only a Jesuit seminarian could appreciate. Some scenes go on too long and the play would not suffer from some judicious trimming.
The saga ends with the ascension of Prignano to the throne of Peter as Pope Urban VI, and the timid "little bishop" becoming an overnight tyrant. The bloodthirsty Cardinal Robert anoints himself Pope Clement VII sets up shop back in France as antipope, marking the start of the Great Schism, a rupture that only fully ended in 1958 when Cardinal Roncalli took the name Pope John XXIII, thus erasing from Roman Catholic records the name of one of the Avignon antipopes. Catherine, of course, was later canonized as Saint Catherine of Siena.
A cast of eight actors portray 30-odd characters, some better than others. Heather Burns is a joy as a rather unsaintly Catherine and the play glows a little brighter when she's onstage. Tate Donovan is droll as Sir Alfred, the randy and slow-witted straight man to Josh Hamilton's more pensive Sir Ralph. And the estimable John Pankow delivers a fine performance as the cold-hearted Cardinal Robert.