Dealing with “Doubt”

Joe Kellen


What are we able to know for sure? This was all that was on the minds of eager attendees to “The Rhetoric of Certainty” event last night at Rarig Center.

I, among others, excitedly awaited this companion piece to the Minnesota Opera’s latest installment in their season, “Doubt: An Opera.” It opens next Friday (you can get more information here) and, like the 2004 play it’s based on, challenges conceptions of certainty and moral ambiguity through the story of a priest accused of inappropriate conduct with a student in the context of a catholic school in 1964. The evening consisted of a conversation about the larger themes of the piece between Star Tribune theatre critic Graydon Royce and three panelists (playwright/librettist John Patrick Shanley, co-founder of MinnPost Joel Kramer, and Heather LaMarre, the assistant professor of strategic communication at the U of M).

Among the myriad of questions posed about doubt and humanity’s aversion to it, there seemed to be one conclusion they could all agree on. Stated by a slightly tongue-in-cheek Royce, “we can’t be certain of anything, but we’re sure gonna try.” This sentiment essentially summed up their roughly hour-long talk, whether they were weighing the search for truth in the media, getting philosophical about Shanley’s view of life as an “ongoing chemical and spiritual explosion,” or postulating about the opera itself. Although the exchange of ideas was thought-provoking and engaging, what made this event worth attending was that it wasn’t just an isolated thought tank for the panelists. The discussion (billed as a public conversation) was followed by a question and answer session with the audience. Each point raised by the attendees was interesting in its own way, but I was most intrigued by the following:

[Directed towards Shanley] “So, obviously your play was extraordinarily well-received and celebrated and the film was as well, so my question is what has drawn you to turn it into an opera? What do you think this could achieve in this medium as opposed to—“

Shanley cut the person off by explaining that the opera came to be out of a “misunderstanding.” He went on to detail his reluctance to do the project and, apparently, the only reason he agreed to take on the work was because he felt guilty about missing an initial lunch meeting with the composer, Douglas Cuomo, who pitched the idea. While this response got a hearty laugh from the crowd, it raised a bigger issue: what is the point of revamping a piece that’s already been produced internationally as a play and as a film? Unfortunately this was the last question asked by the audience and marked the end of the event. I ended up leaving Rarig with this weird, offbeat moment as my last impression of the evening.

So, what is the relevance of another reboot? Frustratingly enough, I still haven’t made my decision. On one hand, the perpetual problem of truth and the importance of seeking it will always be pertinent, especially in our current social and political context. It’s a topic that encompasses all of human belief and causes viewers to dive into the really heady stuff—I can see the identity crises and “meaning of life” questions queuing outside the Ordway already. But on the other hand, it’s a framework people have already seen and grappled with, which may be too tired to continue on to yet another medium. Based on the five minute sample of the opera we received in between segments of chatter, nothing new has emerged. The text was almost identical to the original script and the music was nothing mind-blowing. Despite this, only the Minnesota Opera’s production will give us the definitive answer.  If it manages to take risks and separate itself from other adaptations of the piece, then Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize winning tale will continue to authentically resonate with and awe audiences. For now, though, I have my doubts.