Faith versus rationalism gets lip service in theological study, but it’s a silly silent comedy at the Wexner Center for the Arts that will put that debate center stage this Thursday through Sunday.
Stan’s Cafe, a theater company out of Birmingham, England, has developed these types of shows for decades, but it will bring its new production, “The Cardinals,” to Ohio State for four showings.
The play depicts three bumbling Roman Catholic cardinals putting together a puppet show-type production of “the Bible’s greatest hits” as a morality play.
It’s a rudimentary telling of the Bible with a “naive performance style,” said director James Yarker. “It’s slightly sort of picture book or cartoonish, but very sincere. The live audience finds it funny … but somehow that sincerity allows it to be touching.”
The play within the play is the bread and butter of “The Cardinals.” Yarker, who co-founded Stan’s Cafe in 1991, said his inspiration for developing this play was the image of a puppet show-sized theater filled not with puppets, but disproportionately sized cardinals acting out the drama.
The play is acted almost entirely in silence, which was a “prosaic” decision, Yarker said, as the show was partially commissioned by a French venue that didn’t want English in the play.
“Our French isn’t that great, so it seemed sensible to do it without words,” he said.
Writing a play devoid of dialogue also brings a different aesthetic characteristic, he said.
“It gets rid of a headache because it’s one less thing you have to worry about, and also one less thing the audience has to worry about,” Yarker said. “If the audience isn’t getting information coming at them on that channel, then somehow they’ve got spare processing capacity which allows them to engage in the show in a kind of different way.”
He, along with several members the cast, wrote the play and the initial plan was for the cardinals’ show to be based on of the Spanish Inquisition, but Yarker said his historical readings left him uninspired. He tried swapping it with the Crusades, but “unless you’re a massive historian, they’re not that interesting,” he said. “It generally comes down to people hacking each other to bits, intermittently.”
Ultimately, the cardinals’ play was expanded to encapsulate the beginning of the world to its eventual end, with the Crusades just a small section.
Yarker said the Crusades were surprisingly “quite heartening” when you consider the extended lengths when the opposing sides were able to live together peacefully without “hacking each other to bits.”
He thought this theme would become the core of “The Cardinals” and included a Muslim female stage director who works to keep the cardinals’ show running smoothly.
Yarker said he hopes that the dynamic is representative of a broader historical relationship between the two religions.
“They mostly rub along; they’ve got a load of shared stuff,” he said. “Occasionally there are differences of opinion. Occasionally it gets really heated and really pisses some of them off, but that’s not the only register at which they operate.”
He said some critics were disappointed there wasn’t a grand confrontation with a moral victory from either the cardinals or stage director. Yet one religious scholar told Yarker after a showing he appreciated the nuance of the characters that exists in real life.
That theme flows throughout the play, but Yarker said the play’s heart is really the parallel between the efforts of organized religion and of the cardinals themselves..
Because the cardinals’ methods are visible, the audience can see the show the cardinals believe they are putting on, but also is free to see the behind-the-scenes contrivance.
“They’re bustling like mad until just before they get onstage and then it’s totally serene and that’s the wider experience that the audience gets,” Yarker said. “In the theater, you’re asked to suspend your disbelief. Essentially, religion is asking you to believe, so they’re sort of one and the same.”
As with theater, a maintenance of disbelief in regard to religion might lead to a different truth.
“A straightforward, Marxist-style reading says ‘Religion is a frame you place around the world if you want to exploit it,’” Yarker said. “The show very deliberately says that if you choose not to see outside the frame, it’s a miracle.”
Despite entertaining that notion, Yarker said the play ultimately isn’t anti-religious.
“The cardinals aren’t as stupid as you think they are, actually,” he said. “It’s easy to make shows about a bunch of idiots and it’s quite entertaining, but it’s nicer if the idiots have the last laugh. Maybe there is nothing outside the frame — no one says the Marxists are right. People might co-opt the religion for their political purposes, but it doesn’t mean the faith is wrong.”