The Pope, the Witch, the U and the Churchby Marianne Combs, Minnesota Public Radio
It's unusual for a student production to get any coverage in the media. But a play at the University of Minnesota is attracting more attention than the theater department ever imagined. It's inspired newspaper editorials, blogs, protests from clergy and politicians, and thousands of concerned citizen e-mails.
Minneapolis — It's understandable that a devout Catholic sensitive to the church's public image would take offense at the play "The Pope and the Witch." From the outset, the Pope is presented as paranoid.
He believes thousands of orphan children waiting in the plaza for his blessing are actually part of a trap set by abortionists, and that the children will be left on the Vatican's doorstep for him to raise.
Pope: "Hundreds of banners will be raised and a high-powered mobile speaker will begin declaiming, 'Here we are Holy Father, come to you, you who ordered us to be fruitful and multiply. Let God's creatures abound, enter the light, even if afterward they die like flies!'"
As the play continues, the Pope has a seizure, is exorcized by a witch and is forced to take heroine by gangsters. In his drug-induced euphoria, the Pope begins to see the world around him in a new light.
POPE: "My eyes were blind but now I can see!"
GANGSTER: "For God's sake!"
POPE: "No! Not for His sake! Not this time. He's got nothing to do with it. But wait, maybe it was God who opened my eyes? The imbecile was my brain!"
The Pope returns to the Vatican where he declares he now advocates the use of condoms, approves of abortions, and supports the legalization of drugs. The Pope even vows to give all the wealth of the Catholic Church to the world's most impoverished. Chaos ensues.
The play, director Bob Rosen explains, is an absurdist political satire bent on tackling several social issues.
"The plot is so outrageous that I hope that it helps us look at those things in a heightened way," says Rosen, "even if it makes you say, 'Oh gosh, it made me really affirm my beliefs,' or, 'It's really outrageous but what if we did look at it that way?' And of course the play isn't saying this is the solution."
Nonetheless, when the University announced plans to stage "The Pope and the Witch," the Catholic Church protested. Catholic League president Bill Donohue wrote the University asking it to cancel the play.
Archbishop Harry Flynn accused the University of promoting intolerance and prejudice. Flynn has declined to do interviews about the production, saying that would only draw more attention to the play.
A Web site called The American Institute for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property urged its subscribers to protest the play via e-mail. The University has received thousands of e-mails as well as personal letters. The theater department has posted a wide selection of them for students to read and discuss.
EXCERPT: "As Roman Catholics, we are extremely offended. It is highly doubtful the University would condone a play offensive to Blacks, Muslims, Jews or any other Christian faith leader under the term artistic freedom. As tax-paying citizens of Minnesota, we help to support the University. However, this blatant insult to us and all Catholics makes us feel the University is anti-Catholic and does not deserve our regard."
While many letters are polite and well-reasoned, there are many others filled with vitriol.
EXCERPT: "You will rot in HELL, you Sodom and Gomorrhites, for attacking the Holy Sacred institution of the Roman Catholic Church and OUR HOLY FATHER. Institutions of Higher Learning are nothing but cesspools of depravity, perversion and outright Liberalism...."Vengeance is mine" says the Lord, and I suggest you start believing in a higher spiritual leader before the Wrath of God befalls on you and your crummy institution. You will sow what you reap you PAGAN SOWS!"
For the safety of the students, the University will have a police officer present for all shows, and there will be random bag searches.
What made the University decide to take on such a controversial play? The theater department asked director Bob Rosen to pick something that would take advantage of his experience with physical stagework. Rosen is one of the founding directors of Theatre de le Jeune Lune in Minneapolis, a company known for its physical comedy.
Rosen paged through the classics of Italian Commedia del Arte, but found them rather dusty and stale. So instead he chose "The Pope and the Witch," a much more modern work that deals with contemporary issues but is still heavily influenced by classic physical comedy.
The play's author, Dario Fo, is an Italian satirist who makes a habit of taking on the Catholic Church. The Vatican was noticeably dismayed when Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997.
Director Rosen says Fo does not attack the Catholic faith so much as he criticizes the politics of the Vatican as an institution.
"I'm not interested in doing a play that's anti- Catholic or anti-Jewish or anti-Protestant or anti-Buddhist or anti- any religion for that sake," says Rosen. "I don't understand that. This play was chosen because of the issues involved, because they're very specific, and because the Vatican has a very specific role in its policy and a very huge influence in these issues. And I think it's OK to question policy like that, and not attack the religion."
The University of Minnesota is not the only school that chose "The Pope and The Witch" for its theater season this year. Tulane University in New Orleans also selected the play. But soon after e-mails began flooding in, the theater director dropped the play.
Tulane's public relations office stated that in the wake of Katrina, the university has enough on its hands already without adding a religious controversy.
Steven Rosenstone, dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Liberal Arts, says he feels his University would risk far more by abandoning its commitment to academic freedom.
"If the university is not a place where differences of opinion can be safely expressed," says Rosenstone, "if the university is not a place that embraces ideas regardless of how hard they are to embrace sometimes, the damage to our society is immense."
Rosenstone says this is not the first time the University has staged events that challenged major religions. It's produced Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," a play known for its anti-semitism. And the university has hosted author Salman Rushdie, who is known for attacking Islam.
Rosenstone says if he was not entirely confident in how the theater department was carrying out its selection of plays, he would have questioned the production long ago. Instead he feels the staff, students and faculty are boldly tackling difficult ideas with great integrity, and are taking advantage of the educational opportunity presented by the public's response.
State Sen. Joe Gimse, R-Willmar, is a first-year legislator and a Catholic. He says you can call the production whatever you want, but it's still attacking a large community of faith.
"I'm not a graduate of the University of Minnesota, but it would seem to me that there would be a better way to stimulate the intellectual discussion amongst their students," says Gimse. "All we're simply asking them is to not tear down any religion, not tear down any group of people in its efforts to stimulate intellectual discussion and freedom of expression."
In the midst of this maelstrom of controversy are a bunch of young, enthusiastic and talented theater students preparing to go on stage, including Brant Miller.
Miller plays the Pope in "The Pope and the Witch." He says he's excited to be in the play, not because of its views on abortion, drugs or religion, but because it's the first time he's landed the lead in a university play.
Miller says he understands why people are offended, but he's surprised they're not used to such challenging ideas coming from a liberal arts campus.
"It's freedom of speech in all aspects," says Miller. "We have the freedom to do this show and people have the freedom to critique it. They can come and protest, they can voice their concerns with this production. We're not saying, 'No, no, no, you can't do that,' because that's basically saying we couldn't do the show then. We can't say, 'Your freedom of speech isn't OK, but ours is.' So it hasn't really opened up a dialogue yet because we're not yet talking back and forth. People are just blaming each other."
The University hopes to have a dialogue; it will be hosting a town hall meeting concerning the play. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has stated it will not dignify the play by participating.