With suicide bombers in the Middle East and self-professed terrorists attacking in France and the US, Second Thought Theatre’s staging of the play ‘Martyr’ couldn’t be more timely. But the religious militancy preached here actually comes from a young Christian — although playwright Marius von Mayenberg clearly intends him to mirror Islamic extremism. KERA’s Jerome Weeks sat down with Justin Martin to talk about this Texas premiere of a German play.
It’s rare, isn’t it, for a contemporary German play to move from a world premiere in Berlin and then, within two and a half years, gets staged in Moscow, Paris, London, Chicago and now Dallas?
Is that what happens?
But Benjamin is also a rebuke to anyone who thinks Islam is preaching violence while Christianity is entirely peaceful. Benjamin has this unpleasant habit of justifying his actions by quoting the most dogmatic, bloodthirsty passages from the Bible, the ones where prophets call down death and destruction on the enemies of the Israelites. Benjamin even finds a fair amount of intolerance in the New Testament as well. This is Garret Storms playing Benjamin and Alison Pistorius as his biology instructor. She tried to teach a sex ed class, and he objects. That’s St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy he quotes at the end.
Benjamin: So you think the Bible is lying?
Erika: I don’t care about the Bible. I teach biology.
Benjamin: The Bible says –
Erika: I don’t care what the Bible says.
Benjamin: ‘Let a women learn in silence with all submission. And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man but to be in silence.’
Wow. So how did the audience react?
So they didn’t know whether to take something seriously?
But the Second Thought Theatre’s physical production itself is rather handsome and sharp. Darren Diggle’s set design and Aaron Johansen’s lighting evoke the famous Rothko Chapel in Houston – with its austere simplicity, suggesting a kind of smooth, stone spirituality, a black-or-white world. Frankly, I wish the rest of the show were as attractive. It should be noted there are two stand-out performances. Garret Storms — who’s often seemed actor-y to me in the past — plays Benjamin with complete, cold-hearted, hot-headed conviction, while Ruben Carrazana plays his sidekick George as the complete opposite, an insecure mouse. George is so beaten down and closeted, he’s just grateful for any attention Benjamin gives him. Carrazana is an affecting, sadsack clown.
Now, mixed signals are often what a play wants to express. But because most of the other characters, by the end, have gone to their own extremes, there’s little that feels fully at stake here. And martyrs and suicide bombers are all about raising the stakes. They take what seems an unimportant issue to the rest of us — proper attire for young women swimmers — and push it into a matter of life-or-death. But in the Second Thought production, when gruesome violence does break out at the end and everyone’s yelling and arguing, little feels really at stake because the people themselves don’t feel real.
I find this fascinating, but anything else open last week?
And you’re playing music because that’s why it’s called a ‘suite’?
So each painting features a musical instrument of some kind — lute, flute or virginal (a kind of harpsichord). And the exhibition provides headphones and audio stations explaining the instruments and how they sounded then — a clever bit of help. In the 17th century, showing off your harpsichord in a portrait was a sign of breeding and class — like a grand piano in an American home in the ’50s and ’60s. Painters also used playing music as an amorous sign — a couple playing a little duet together. It was also an entertainment in a brothel, a sign of dissipation. Women are shown playing a lute, for instance, but there’s another instrument nearby — implying they’re waiting for a certain someone to play with them.
The use of such symbolism added texture to the Dutch paintings. It seems counter-intuitive but it probably has to do with the Protestantism that ruled the land: The Dutch developed such a strong emphasis on warm, clear, highly detailed realism, yet at the same time, their artworks are rife with symbols, with a language of hidden meanings. The entire subject of Dutch paintings and music and what it meant has been a popular one in recent years, including a major exhibition at the National Gallery in London three years ago. The DMA show is like a pocket version of that show.
Not to be blunt, but why do we care?
So hey, it’s a Vermeer.