Fool's Mass
= From Dzieci Theatre
= Directed by Matt Mitler
= at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC
= December 2023

= December brought one of my favorite NYC theater events — the 25th iteration of Dzieci Theatre’s production of Fool’s Mass. I saw this movable feast in a side chapel of the majestic Cathedral of St. John the Divine (that is, a side chapel itself the size of a small church).

The production takes off from Marat/Sade, putting the lunatics in a sacred ambience and adding glorious irreverence. Ten or so actors play idiots — in the sense of “village idiots” — who’ve lost their priest and have to slug their way through a mass themselves. Dressed in colorless rags, almost all with caps and sporting dirty faces, they’re the picture of medieval bedlam. They give us masterful ensemble work, sometimes moving with the unity of a school of fish, sometimes freezing in lovely tableaux vivants.

The iconography of religion indicates what the ersatz ceremony refers to: there’s a table in the audience with a loaf of bread, a bell and a metal cup, and there are seven candles on white-clothed table onstage. 

Alternating between buffoonery and genuine devotion, the fools create a sort of anarchy that seems tenuously controlled and benefits from a little bit of luck. The outline follows the pattern of the mass — complete with a gospel and a Kyrie and the breaking of bread. The congregation sing music that combines medieval Gregorian chant with Renaissance harmony — and, for all the confusion, the singing is meticulous. 

They ensemble works in waves of energy. One starts acting out — well, like a manic — and the others join them until they’re tired. There are moments of silence and moments with words, intelligible or otherwise. They involve the audience with instructions — we’re led to rise and sit to the point of absurdity. One madman prods us repeatedly to raise our hands in praise until the others, exasperated, gang up on him. One or two audiences members are drafted to read to us, and some of us get hugs.

What a terrific combination of buffoonery and religion Fool’s Mass is! The unbridled emotions of the lunatics — expressed in the real mannerisms of psychiatric pathology — resolve themselves into unexpected reverence. And it’s all set among the granite saints of St. John’s. We’re looking forward to another 25 years from Dzieci Theatre.

- Steve Capra


December 2023

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