L to R, Simon Tottrup as Sergius, Matt McKinney as Bacchus. Photo credit Jason Ho.
The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus
April 22rd – May 3rd, 2014
EPCOR CENTRE’s Motel
You would think that a play entitled The Passion of Sergius and Bacchus would strive to have some passion in it. The word is in the title after all. Besides, shouldn’t passion be a major driving force in a story about two high-ranking historical Roman soldiers living openly in a gay relationship but exposed as secret Christians and executed as a result? You’d think so. But unfortunately this original Third Street Theatre production is about as passionless as you can get, delivering timelines and facts in place of emotion and insight.
The play, written by Third Street’s Creation Ensemble, Matt McKinney, Amy Sawka and Simon Tottrup, under the direction of Paul Welch, is inspired by John Boswell’s take on Christian martyrs, Sergius and Bacchus. According to Boswell, the soldiers’ relationship was a romantic one tolerated by the Romans and even consecrated by early Christians. It wasn’t until the lovers rejected the Gods of Rome and became Christians that the wrath of the Roman emperor was unleashed, requiring they be killed for paganism and betrayal of the emperor and his Gods.
Sure Boswell’s theories are controversial and have been rejected by some historians, but none of that matters on stage. With its love story and secret faith and betrayal and punishment, this story of Sergius and Bacchus has all the elements for a great play. But to get at the drama, we need to get to know and care about the soldier/lovers and this is where the production misses on all counts.
Sergius (Simon Tottrup) and Bacchus (Matt McKinney) are introduced to us in a series of slipshod flash tableaus. Here they are fighting. Here they are winning. Here they are celebrating. Here they are kissing. We do get some time with them and their male friend Antiochus (Amy Sawka) playing tag and joking around, but it’s not nearly the character building blocks we need in order to connect. Quickly then the play gives us another short undeveloped scene where Bacchus, coming to after a near mortal wound on the battlefield, tells Sergius of his vision. There is something else out there, he says. And just as fast as you can say Holy Father, the two are now Christian, bound together by both their love for each other and their faith in Christ.
But why do they love each other? And how is their relationship viewed by the Roman population? And what inner struggles did they have to go through to give up their previous faith and accept an outlawed savior? And aren’t they scared of being found out? And why are we still asking these questions after sitting through an hour-long show that should have at least attempted to address some of this? As scene after scene in this lightweight play passes, it becomes increasingly clear that the writers’ disinterest in their characters’ inner lives is going to make this show a slog despite two bright moments. Playing on the stereotypical insults hurled at the gay community, Antiochus is disgusted when he learns of Sergius and Bacchus’ conversion to Christianity. “It’s gross….you were so normal…it’s perverted”, Antiochus spits at them. Yes the irony of the pair being called these things not for their sexual preference but for their choice in religion is a nice twist of ideology. Later when Sergius and Bacchus marry in a Christian ceremony there is a very amusing interchange about monogamy and the pair’s ability to be with no one but each other. However two small moments cannot begin to make up for a play full of missed opportunities.
Sawka as a decent Antiochus (and a number of other characters including the emperor) strangely gets the lion’s share of the dialogue in the production, further distancing us from the leads we desperately want to know more about. Tottrup’s stiff portrayal of Sergius is helped by his limited dialogue. McKinney fares better but any spark of ability is quashed by his thinly written character and minimal spots of expression in the script.
Working with a bare stage, save for three ribbon-like curtains hanging from the ceiling, Welch does little to bring gravitas or emotion to the stage. Instead he relies on jokey masturbation staging and a morning blowjob to get our attention. Had the rest of the production demanded our focus, these scenes would have worked well. But as stand alones in an otherwise visually dull presentation, they seemed gimmicky and over reaching.
Over reaching in fact, seems to be the theme of this young company’s 2013/14 season that, at least in my mind, has been disappointing compared to last season’s stellar inaugural productions. Perhaps it’s the curse and pressure of following up your first big hits or perhaps the double size season this year was biting off more than they could chew. Whatever the reason, this is a company with great potential and an important niche in the theatre community. I keep my fingers crossed that they can get back to telling complex and emotionally resonating stories that put them on my radar in the first place.
For history buffs – It doesn’t really matter if you believe Boswell’s assertions or not, this is a fascinating story that should have given insight into a time and place and people. But with barely any character development or discussion of the time, this play is far too thin to bring anything to your table. SKIP IT
From a religious interest – Yes it’s interesting to see how Christianity was once treated as an abomination and curious to consider that gay marriage was once condoned by the church. But these are facts laid out in the play, not situations dramatized for intellectual or emotional effect. As such, the power to move or peak interest is greatly diminished. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – The story is there, it’s plainly told and sure, you may learn something. But this one may feel like taking your medicine rather than an entertaining or engaging production. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – Such a great story, such missed opportunities. SKIP IT