Murder in the Cathedral review- City Lit Theater performs a classic

Stephen Fedo, James Sparling, Kara Chandler, Katarina Bakas, Isabel Schmitz, Joel Thompson and John Blick in City Lit Theater's production of T.S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral", directed by Terry McCabe
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City Lit Theatre is currently presenting Nobel laureate in literature T.S. Eliot’s MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL through June 16, 2024, directed by outgoing beloved longtime Producer and Artistic Director Terry McCabe, featuring an original score of deep and lovely organ music by Philip Seward. The first full Chicago production of the play in 70 years, it is being environmentally staged in the sanctuary of Edgewater Presbyterian Church, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., Chicago; it was first performed at Canterbury Cathedral in 1935 and published the same year.

The play is an example of what some jaundiced critics have called “a decline into the poorly dramatized recitations of the convert”, referencing Eliot’s later-in-life conversion to Anglo-Catholicism. However, staged in the historically supportive setting of the spare, antique Presbyterian Church, replete with authentic priestly garb, it was persuasive and compelling.

Apoetic drama” in two parts, it is composed of verse, with a prose sermon interlude. The language is saturated with biblical allusions. Known as a “modern miracle play”, due to the obvious parallels to the Life of Christ, it’s set in the month of December 1170, and enshrines the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury. This version was comprised of a relatively pared down, but still large cast made up of Tempters/Messenger/Knights, Priests,(including Becket), and a gorgeously voiced Classical Greek Chorus, it’s most striking feature.

The piece opens upon 4 highly expressive and emotional poor women of Canterbury who make up the chorus nervously awaiting Thomas’s return from his seven-year exile; they are worried about his tempestuous relationship with King Henry II. After Thomas arrives, to rejoicing and relief, he is subjected to four temptations: worldly pleasures, lasting power as chancellor, recognition as a leader of the barons against the king, and eternal glory as a martyr. It seems he resists the first 3 only.

Isabel Schmitz, John Blick, Katarina Bakas, James Sparling, Kara Chandler

The archbishop delivers a fraught and fulsome Christmas morning sermon, after which knights in the service of the king accost him and order him to leave the kingdom. He refuses, and they return to slay him in the cathedral, which is locked and secured. Their pounding well-nigh batters down the Church itself, and Thomas orders them to be admitted, accepting (welcoming?) the destiny he has embraced.

After Becket succumbs onstage, in a very clever scene in which swords enter his person and red streamers emerge, the knights’ strip off their costumery, appearing in classic business attire. They deliver an apologia addressed in 20th-century idiom and verbiage, speaking directly to the modern audience. The contrast between the declaimed poetry and the Oxford English toned language used in the knights-as-businessmen/barristers’ appeal is so striking that this reviewer wondered if the last segment wasn’t penned especially for this production. 

The last ingenious portion of the performance lifted the dramatic action from the characters and placed it in the hands of the audience as jury, an English institution ancient and revered. We are asked to choose between Becket’s explanation for his actions and the knights suggestions; we are called upon to render a verdict on who killed Thomas when death came for The Archbishop- God? Man? Both?

“The last temptation is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

Katerina Bakas, Isabel Schmitz, Sally Olson and Karen Chandler

Kudos to the versatile cast: 

James Sparling as the likable and venerable Beckett

The chorus: Katarina Bakas, Kara Chandler, Sally Olsen and Isabel Schmitz

The Priests: John Blick, Stephen Fedo and Joel Thompson

Tempter/Knights: Sean Harklerode, Varris Holmes and Robert Howard

Messenger/Knight: Zach Kunde

Thanks to the production team: Mike McShane, lighting design; Patti Roeder, costume design; Paul Chakrin, fight choreography, and Carrie Hardin, dialect coach.

All photos by Steve Graue

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