Take away what you want from The Schoolyard's latest endeavor, "The Last Leaper of Charenton"; a transitional tale of the struggle between science and religion or a morality play about who judges beauty and sanity with resonance of the issues of today. Either way what you're in for is a promising and intriguing new work from local playwright Todd van der Ark.
It's 1671 and religion is beginning to give way to science, which leaves Charenton in an identity crisis as it transitions between religious hospital and insane asylum. Brother Etienne (Dustin Engstrom) has returned from abroad with exciting and controversial new treatments for him and Sister Estelle (Kenna Kettrick) to implement on their patients, the melancholic Brigitte (JenRenee Paulson), the syphilitic Bruno (David Rollison) and the leper Alain (Michael Harris). But as the treatments are administered the lines begin to blur. Who's sane and who's mad? Who's beautiful and who's deformed? Who's sick and who's to judge? And even who's real and who's not? Playwright van der Ark and director Gary Zinter have taken a time in history when very little in the world was clear and put it under the microscope to reveal a hypocrisy that still exists in the world today as members of our own society feel the need to choose what is right for people they don't understand.
The play itself is poetic and lyrical but at times gets weighed down in its own message, forsaking story for language. This causes the ending to become a bit muddled and abrupt. But even with its shortcomings it manages a haunting beauty with its engaging characters and resonant tale.
The performances are wonderful. The soft-spoken and sweet Harris manages a confused vulnerability to the leper and is the perfect counterpart to the boisterous and crude Rollison who brilliantly keeps his character on The Edge of mad man and figment as they both vie for the affections of the conflicted Paulson with her tragic need for love. Engstrom turns in a sublime arc as the man of God turning to science and ultimately succumbing to his own madness and baser desires. And Kettrick keeps the strength of her character to the bitter end as she becomes the one clear constant at the asylum. However all the characters seemed to waver from the time period they were in although that could be blamed on the writing to some extent.
With our Seattle summer winding down and the good weather waning, a heady piece such as this might be a tough sell. But I urge you to take the chance on this as van der Ark is a voice in the local playwright community who needs to be heard. And the play as a whole turns in an evocative quality that will linger long after you leave the theater.
"The Last Leper of Charenton" from The Schoolyard performs at the Ballard Underground through September 8th. For tickets visit Brown Paper Tickets at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/265936 or visit The Schoolyard online at www.facebook.com/TheSchoolyardSeattle.
Photo credit: David Wulzen