A COMPANY OF WAYWARD SAINTS
at Red Bones Theatre
The best thing about A Company of Wayward Saints, George Herman's stalwart 1966 comedy, is its happy, if accidental, resemblance to Jean Renoir's The Golden Coach. Like that exquisite film, it offers a passionate tribute to the resilience of actors and to the truths of make-believe. Both works depict stranded commedia dell'arte troupes who must literally improvise their way home; both praise the power of art to make sense of life.
But A Company of Wayward Saints also suggests, especially in its mellow-to-maudlin second act, a poor man's Our Town. The winsomeness is aggressive, likewise the preaching. (The latter is also literal, as the play gradually turns unashamedly religious; one character, asked if he believes in God, replies with a straight and sanctimonious face, "No, God believes in me.")
Still, before it takes itself too seriously, there's some fun in Wayward Saints, especially in its inventive Pirandellian demonstration of how life justifies art by imitating it. La Compagnia dei Santi Ostinati are a troupe of ten rather unsaintlike actors inhabiting an anachronistic, indeterminate present who specialize in classic stock parts (Harlequin, Columbine, Pantalone, Scapino, etc), hammy stuff with all the subtlety of a slapstick. This particular night the show actually starts on time but, perversely, most of the company arrives late. (Apparently it's their revenge against the latecomers they usually endure.)
Once the ragged troupe finally assemble they discover that they lack the money to get home--unless they play for their passage by pleasing a duke who happens to be in the audience. This patron will subsidize them, however, only if they improvise on his daunting theme, the "History of Man."
Merrily springing into action--which means plenty of pratfalls, sight gags, puns, and other groan-inducing humor--the troupe burlesques seminal mythical and historical events. In Adam's fall, appropriately, the pedantic Dottore plays the Tree of Knowledge while the acrobatic Scapino plays the slithering Snake, who bridles at the arrogance of the vicious new species. In Odysseus's return to Penelope, the bellicose Capitano and the suspicious Columbine reinvent the war between the sexes. Playing Caesar's wife in the saga of his murder, Ruffiana ("the Tart") warns her husband about a dream she had--but it turns out to be a wet one, irrelevant to his survival.
These silly scenes succeed only in making the actors revert to selfish children, pitting them against one another; undisciplined and inharmonious, they abandon the play. "We have lost the art," wails Harlequin, who rushes off to rally the demoralized troupe.
In the second act they stumble onto their art again, by treating the "History of Man" as the history of a single man. The scenes now depict birth (a soppy episode that shamelessly refuses to profit from Thornton Wilder's example), adolescence (a spoof of Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher), marriage (a hilarious scene between a female marriage broker and a daughter-marrying father that ends unexpectedly with their liaison), and death (an overwritten vignette in which a soldier decides to follow the vocation of the priest he must execute).
In these edifying, moralizing episodes the troupe learn that history lies in us, that the scenes they perform are their very lives.
But unfortunately that kind of artistic calculation makes Wayward Saints seem too premeditated, too mapped out. For all its apparent spontaneity, it's as self-conscious as The Fantasticks, and lacks that play's magical score, which disguises the machinery. It's no surprise that Wayward Saints has been catnip to college, community, and church theaters.
Though KKT Productions' staging is ragged and evinces an almost convulsive desire to please, its high-spirited, good-hearted, anything-for-a-laugh approach does fill the play's bill. It's delightfully easy to mistake these hardworking actors for their commedia equivalents. The improvisations, even the glib anachronisms, seem natural, though the actors are stiff, ironically, when they're playing themselves. To show how much the players' art improves on their world, director Kathleen A. Halter needs to make her actors show the distance between their commedia and improvisatory roles--and then, too, when they close that distance we can savor their success.
Harlequin's final request to the audience is "Please, single out no one player for your praise, huh?" OK.