Cardinal Sins brings sex, bawdiness, royal caprice and honorable actions to Centerstage Theatre
I was impressed by the content of Cardinal Sins before I even went to see it. It’s the story of how Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Brian Pucheu), forced the English King John (Joshua Williamson) to sign the Magna Carta. Because it’s the basis for the human rights written into the American Constitution, I think it’s important to see how oppression by an arbitrary tyrant could be curbed by the signing of this document.
And to think it’s a musical, a powerful and spirited musical!
The story begins after Prince John becomes the acting Regent while his brother Richard (the Lionhearted, as he was popularly called) is away on a Crusade.
The scene opens on the eve of the marriage of Stephen (Brian Pucheu) and Alais (Caitlin Frances), the child of Baron Hugh de Neville (Stephen Grenley). After the opening dance, Prince John comes in and the men and he sing a bawdily rousing and lively song, “More Meat!” He demands that Reginald (Coulter Dittman), his priest, bring Alais to him so he can exercise his droit du seigneur, the right to have first copulation with a bride.
Alais is traumatized and insists that Stephen’s friend Lothar, a local priest (Martyn G. Krouse) tell Stephan and her family that she has poisoned herself from shame. Both Stephen and Alais join the church, Stephen as a priest and Alais as a nun.
Richard dies of his wounds and John became the King. He uses his power to tax his Barons almost to penury and the Barons on their part, tax their vassals to pay the royal extortion. John’s pattern of vicious opportunism brings many of the Barons and thus their vassals to abject poverty. The vassals can’t buy seed to plant and harvest so they have something to sell and enough to tide them over the winter. They can’t pay their tithe to the landowner and they and their families end up migrants, starving and unsheltered.
Meanwhile, the populace is suffering under John. One vassal (Jamie Pederson) who sold his land to pay his tithe, with Belinda, his daughter (Cass Neumann) wanders the land trying to not starve or freeze to death. On the edge of starvation, he shoots a deer in the King’s forest and both are put in prison. He’s hung for his crime.
Stephan is suffering from the great responsibility he has. He tells Raymond that he needs to talk to someone, even if not in the church, to sooth his soul and achieve some inner peace. Raymond thinks he knows someone who may be able to help and sets up a correspondence with Alais, incognito of course. They begin as Stranger to Stranger and continue as Friend to Friend with Alais prompting Stephen to not be controlled by politics, to do the right thing for all involved.
In the interim, Stephen is moving up in the Church with the patronage of Pope Innocent III. He attends a Paris university, becomes a teacher and ultimately, the Archbishop of Paris. This is because his childhood friend, Lothar has achieved his ambition to become the pope, Innocent III, the ninth man in his family to become the Pope.
After the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Innocent bullies John into selecting Stephen as the Bishop of Canterbury.
Stephen begins consulting the Barons and other people about a possible charter establishing rights. The Barons and the populace are insisting that they must kill King John and place their own man on the throne. Stephen demurs and insists that it’s foolish to take a despot off the throne and replace him with another possible despot.
As Canterbury’s Archbishop and the leader of the English Catholic church, Stephen forces John to sign the Magna Carta, the recognition of the human rights for all the residents.
Even though John didn’t consider that his signature on the Charter had any significance, John’s later death, presumably by poison, made his son the king. Upon the assumption of the throne by the child Henry IV, (Jasmyne Mendoza), Stephen has a champion. Finally, the Barons as well as the common people had recognition of their human rights. The significance of the Magna Carta is that common people finally had rights, too, not just the nobles, who were also subject to the impulses of the King.
All the actors including Elisabeth A. Ballstadt, Dani Hobbs, Cooper Harris-Turner, Estace de Vesci, MJ Jurgensen, Shannon Burch and Barrett T. Penrod did a great job.
The play is very forceful. Author and current Artistic Director of Centerstage, Alan Bryce, brings the same spirit and sad emotions to "Cardinal Sins" that he did to last year’s moving "For All That," a heartfelt homage to the losses of the Isle of Sky men and their families in the First World War.
The music was stirring and resonated with the audience. “More Meat” and “The Crown Jewels” are sure to become the anthems of the more manly manly men. "Love Doesn’t Die" and "The Goodness of Angels" are both chaste, emotional and beautiful. Lyricist Chana Wise and composers John Forster, Ron Barnett, Milton Reame-Hames, Carl Johnson and Greg Smith, also the musical director, keyboardist and orchestrator, are all to be congratulated for their Broadway-worthy work. The original medieval lyrics or chants originated by the original Stephen Langton.
Janessa Jayne Styck’s costume designs really embodied the relative roughness and poverty of life. The only bright or light colors were among the nobility, most notably King John, Innocent III, and Stephen Langton. John’s clothing was the least worn looking. Styck used real satin for his court dress: light, shiny yellow and white and a more ornate coronet. The Pope’s crosier was shining white and gold. His gowns were not cotton or burlap; however his white robe seemed to have a red bedspread for his over cloak. Langton’s albs were crisp and snowy. His cardinal’s cloak was red with a fur trim. You could tell that they were important. The starving vassal, Belinda had a dress that was as torn and disheveled as any homeless, starving persons would be.
Before the play began, I noticed the set by scenic designer Craig Wollam. It was a castle wall that spread across the back of the stage with one visible stairwell and entrances/exits in three places, although, there may have been stairs from the top to backstage. Three very long panels marked the back of the parapet and displayed a fleur de lis each.
The Norman invasion was successful in 1066 and the appropriate polite court manners, dances, foods and music all came from France. The peasants, of course, were Anglo-Saxon which illustrated the cultural divide. At that time, the king and some barons had possessions in the north of France, so the royal French emblem is entirely appropriate.
The panels worked as room dividers or even slamming doors without the bang. The center panel moved sideways on a track. When John wanted to show indifference to a peasant or aggravation to Stephen, or anyone else that irritated him (and there was a continuous line of those people), he’d throw the panel open and go behind it and fling it back very decisively. It was an excellent piece of scenic design and a definitive piece of an actor’s business.
The castle walls were painted grey and the exits were always shrouded in black. It was grim, but, those castles were built of stone blocks and were always cold and dampish, even in the summer.
Amy Johnson Lambert created the choreography; the opening scene is a very decorous dance to a lilting melody and apparently great fun to the dancers.
Now to the critical people in the production: director John Henry Davis and his assistant Taylor Davis. Davis has been directing for years and his experience showed in this production. He’s directed for theatre, opera, film and the stage. His skill with the music and lyrics are phenomenal. Assistant director Taylor Davis has directed Tacoma Musical Playhouse, Seattle Musical Theatre and many others. At Centerstage she directed and even performed as Robin Hood in their Christmas Pantomime (hilarious every year and funny for adults as well as children).
Recently, she received Broadway World’s Best Leading Actress in a Musical for the role of Kate/Lucy in Avenue Z.
Very experienced directors and a great book, lyrics, music and singer’s voices and wonderful actors make a memorable theater experience. The raw material, in my mind, is Broadway worthy.
Cardinal Sins runs until June 4 – only two more weekends to see it. The remarkable thing is, Centerstage Theatre has received a $2,000 grant for local high school students to see it for FREE! Take advantage of this immediately!
Go online to centerstagetheatre.com for tickets or call the box office at 253-661-1444.