The Pope who cried witch

Despite the controversy, U Theatre presents ‘The Pope and the Witch,’ a play that questions aspects of Catholicism

Haily Gostas

If for some reason you haven’t yet heard about “The Pope and the Witch” and its upcoming University Mainstage run, give it a Google and you’ll likely find scores of people trying to tell you how to feel about it.

“The Pope and the Witch”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., tonight through March 9
WHERE: Stoll Thrust Theatre, Rarig Center, West Bank
TICKETS: $8-12, (612) 624-2345, [email protected]

“Offensive and blasphemous,” say some. “An attack on Catholicism,” others argue. “Pure hate speech.” “Gives license to defamation.” The list goes on and on, but the real problem here is obvious. These opinions are solely based on the play’s intentionally exaggerated interpretations of abortion, AIDS and our beloved Pope as an insatiable heroin addict, to name a few of the targets at which it takes aim. They refuse to examine for something profound beyond the shock of surface value.

Director Robert Rosen hopes University Theatre audiences dig a bit deeper than that.

“We’re trying to confront head-on the issues you see in today’s newspapers, but this play asks us to look at them in a different and outrageous way in order to understand why they’re continually criminalized,” he said. “I think many people misinterpret the play as telling it the only way it’s supposed to be.”

What is so wonderful about this show in particular, Rosen argues, is that such theatrical suspensions of disbelief allow for the treatment of topical subjects in a brilliantly amplified way.

“Humor is great to touch on things that are otherwise difficult to discuss,” he continued. “Sometimes, it’s a bit easier than dealing with them realistically.”

Written by accomplished Italian playwright and savage sociopolitical satirist Dario Fo, “The Pope and the Witch” is a fast-paced, highly physical black comedy that depicts a pope with a problem. Afflicted with an unknown, anxiety-based ailment after the arrival of 100,000 starving orphans to his domain (in what he considers to be a fanatical plot by birth control activists to humiliate him), the Pope seeks salvation from a rather unconventional nun. When she eventually reveals herself to be a Bantu Witch Doctor involved in movements that support women’s rights and drug addicts, the Pope is forced to re-examine his stubborn perceptions and learn to extend his powers to the people that need them most.

Rosen, cofounder of Minneapolis’ renowned Theatre de la Jeune Lune, initially proposed “The Pope and the Witch” to the University Theatre’s season committee not only because of its irreverent, hyperpolitical tackling of contemporary issues, but because of a special connection to its scribe.

“I enjoy Fo’s work very much. He has a wonderful, very particular style of writing, and he’s really a great storyteller,” Rosen explained. “I felt this would be a good combination for the students – very active in its comedic style, yet dealing with pertinent social and political issues.”

Fo was an outspoken critic of religious and governmental corruption and human rights violations, and smartly wrote in the lighthearted traditions of commedia dell’arte, puppetry and clowning to address by drastic comparison the socially explosive issues found in “The Pope and the Witch.”

“Because of how volatile the show can be, some argue that it’s an assault on Catholicism and the Vatican’s stance specifically,” said Rosen. “But what Fo shows us is that we don’t just have the right to question authority, we have an obligation to it.”

So, provided they can delve beneath all the thick controversy surrounding “The Pope and the Witch,” what does Rosen hope attendees will take away from the show?

“I think it’s always difficult when you present a piece of art. You hope others like it, but you never can dictate their opinions,” he explained. “I never try to do that, to suggest what exactly they should ‘get’ in the message. I just hope people look beyond the obvious, the humor and truly think about the subject matter involved. Ultimately, I just hope they walk away with something.”