Sunday, 30 November 2014

OUR LADY OF KIBEHO by Katori Hall at the Signature Theatre

     I am fascinated with the number of plays now running in New York that touch on religious issues. GRAND CONCOURSE deals with issues of faith and mercy in a Catholic soup kitchen in the Bronx. THE OLDEST BOY centers on the reincarnation of a Tibetan Lama in a young Tibetan-American boy. OUR LADY OF KIBEHO dramatizes the documented and Vatican-approved visions of the Virgin Mary experienced by three adolescent schoolgirls in Rwanda in 1981. There's not a moment of cynicism in these plays about the possibility of the validity of Catholicism or Tibetan Buddhism.
     I can't praise OUR LADY OF KIBEHO highly enough. Katori Hall has created a riveting drama. Michael Grief has given it the production it deserves and the large cast couldn't be better. The play takes place in a small Catholic girls school in the remote Rwandan village of Kibeho. The school is run by a young Tutsi priest, Father Tuyishime ((Owiso Odera) and a stern Hutu nun, Sister Evangelique (Starla Benford). The power arrangement at the school is typical of Catholic gender hierarchy, but also typical of the power dynamics of Rwanda in 1981, when minority Tutsis held the positions of power. When the play begins, one girl, Alphonsine (Nneka Okafor) has already started having visions. Eventually two other girls begin experiencing similar visions. There's nothing particularly special about these girls. They don't even like each other. Why would they be chosen as the vessels of Mary's intercession? Sister Evangelique thinks these visions are either teenage pranks or signs of diabolical possession. However, the visions become more and more miraculous (and theatrically spectacular), so Father Tuyishime and his superior, Bishop Gahaminyi contact the Vatican. The bishop sees the possibility of Kibeho becoming another Lourdes, thus making Rwanda a tourist destination. Anyone who knows the history of Marian visions (the most famous ones involve prophesies of bloodshed) or the recent history of Rwanda, knows that the outcome is not likely to be so positive.
     I don't want to be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that OUR LADY OF KIBEHO is a taut dramatic thriller, but far more than that. It gives us a picture of the conflicts that were ingrained in Rwandan society at the time as well as a fascinating glimpse into Catholic doctrine. More important, it dramatizes the possibility of the miraculous in the most unlikely places. Michael Greif has given this rich, powerful script the production it deserves. He uses all of the Irene Diamond Theatre -- stage, side stages, crossovers, aisles, to surround the audience with this drama. The projections and special effects offer theatre magic. Rachel Hauck's set, full of moveable parts, allows the drama to move at a relentless pace. With some clever doubling, the cast of fifteen seems to be much larger. The music (Michael McElroy) and sound design (Matt Tierney) add to the other-worldy quality of this theatrical saga.
     It's almost impossible to single out individual performances. Everyone in this ensemble is superb. The highest compliment I can give is to say that the ensemble acts as if they have been working together for years.
      OUR LADY OF KIBEHO is simply one of the best productions of the year.
OUR LADY OF KIBEHO. Pershing Square Signature Center. November 29, 2014.

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