Transcendence Found in a `Fools' Mass': When Priest Dies, Castoffs Carry on. (Theater)
Blaney, Retta, National Catholic Reporter
Midnight Mass is about to begin. The congregants are arriving. Nervous choir members escort people to their seats and wander about anxiously dusting the seats and muttering to themselves. Then one discovers the priest has just died.
So begins "Fools' Mass," a delightful performance by Dzieci, an international experimental theater ensemble based in New York. Dzieci (pronounced "djyeh-chee"), which means "children" in Polish, was founded by actor Matt Mitler in 1997. Their mission declaration states that this theater group is dedicated to the search for the sacred through the medium of theater.
The choir members are 16th-century peasants, with dirty faces, unkempt hair and missing teeth. They are the mentally and physically handicapped castoffs of society who have been transformed by their priest, Father Jerzy, into an idiot savant choir. Mitler said his group was looking for a way to understand the Mass that would approach the innocence and acceptance of a child.
The 13 cast members do just that. They draw the audience in with their childlike attempts to perform the Christmas Mass for the already assembled congregation. They start with what they remember, running to the back of the church, in this case the chantry, of Grace Episcopal Church in Manhattan, and then they process in singing the Introit. Confusion and mayhem erupt at times as they proceed, asking each other what's next. Mitler's character tearfully apologizes for not being able to make the Mass beautiful like Father Jerzy. "We make it ugly," he cries, explaining that Father Jerzy was "very close to God" and made them feel "a little bit next to him." He tells the audience -- his congregation -- that they are here to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the important thing is to come together. "Please don't leave. We try to make the Christmas Mass some way."
They struggle with the readings, even recruiting an audience member for one. They fight over the Communion bread until one member holds it up high, breaks it and begins singing "Agnus Dei." Calmed by this, the others take pieces, break them and share them with the audience. This sacramental transformation carries them through to the end, when one member tells the audience to go in peace and puts her finger to her lips for them to go in silence as well. No curtain calls and applause for this performance, only a feeling of peace and transformation. Cast members, staying in character, greet the audience outside the church, wishing them Happy Christmas.
"Fools' Mass" was developed after Dzieci members began adapting and rehearsing Aldous Huxley's historical treatise, "The Devils of Loudon," about a group of 17th-century Ursuline nuns who feign madness and are declared to have been possessed by the charismatic priest, Fr. Urban Grandier, who is imprisoned, tortured and martyred. The theatrical group felt it was important to know more about the Catholic Mass. Their interest led them to create "Fools' Mass." Because so many of the hymns and chants they encountered dealt with Jesus' birth and Mary his mother, they decided to make it a Christmas show. Tickets were by donation only.
The show has historical roots, Mitler said, explaining that in the Middle Ages a town's people and peasants were allowed one day each year to take on the roles of religious and political leaders, mocking them in parades and performances to "blow off steam so it wouldn't happen the rest of the year. …