“God’s Fool,” the 70-minute theater piece about St. Francis of Assisi conceived and directed by Martha Clarke that’s at LaMaMa through July 2, would probably be best appreciated by those who are already well-versed in the life of Francis, and in the work of Martha.
“The life of Francis of Assisi has been told many times,” it says in the program, and “God’s Fool” doesn’t really tell it again – certainly not his wild youth as the son of a wealthy merchant who spends his time as a playboy and a soldier, nor his transformation into a visionary.
When we meet Patrick Andrews as Francis, he is already dressed as a monk, as are the seven other performers. And even though some of them double as specific characters in his life – his father (George de la Peña), the Pope, a leper whom he kisses, his disciples – most of their stage time seems spent wearing elaborate animal heads and masks. Francis has serious conversations with a boar and a bear and bird and a wolf. I know it was wrong of me to find these scenes faintly ludicrous, but at least I sided with him in his conversations with the Devil (John Kelly) who wears a knitted red cat beanie hat (presumably the protuberances are horns, not ears.)
The text by poet Fanny Howe is spare, and not manifestly linear, but it occasionally strikes a chord. At one point, Francis says:
Don’t seek to be consoled. Console others.
Don’t expect to be understood. Understand others. Don’t beg to be loved. Love.
It’s easy to argue, though, that the text is not the point of “God’s Fool.” This is where a knowledge of Martha Clarke’s work would be helpful. She trained as a dancer at Juilliard before becoming a founding member of Pilobolus Dance Theatre fifty-one years ago, then embarked on a solo career conceiving, directing and choreographing dance theater pieces on an eclectic mix of subjects.
The last piece of hers I saw, “Angel Reaper” was about another religious community (the Shakers), and although it was co-written by another well-established writer (Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Alfred Uhry), it had even fewer memorable spoken exchanges than “God’s Fool”
The greatest delights of “God’s Fool” are the dance moves that are often visually stunning (helped by lighting designer Christopher Akerlind) and, above all, an enchanting a cappella score that ranges from Latin chants and compositions by the 11th century German composer (and abbess) Hildegard Von Bingen to Gustav Mahler to John Cage to old American Spirituals sung by cast member James A. Pierce III.
One needn’t be seeking religious enlightenment or even spiritual uplift to be pleased by this work of art. But it’s hard not to appreciate a little divine irony in its creation. This dance theater piece about a monk who had renounced his wealth and worldly goods is being financed by a monk named Roy Cockrum who reportedly became wealthy by winning $259 million in the Powerball lottery, and started giving grants to regional theaters around the country.