THE LAST CONFESSION THEATRE REVIEW
Roger Crane’s The Last Confession is first rate drama at its best. Not only does it tackle the big issues but it also has a top notch cast that delivers solid, riveting performances. The ensemble is rather cannily led by David Suchet, who from 1989 to 2013 has portrayed Inspector Hercule Poirot on TV adaptations of Agatha Christie’s celebrated sleuth.
The major topics that Confession takes on are the role of religion and the behind-the-scenes infighting of Holy Mother Church, which is both a spiritual as well as a temporal power. As the latter, Vatican City is literally an independent state and as the earthly representative of the official creed of almost a billion people, it’s also a political and economic entity to be reckoned with. Viewers of 1990’s third installment of The Godfather saga may be familiar with the Vatican’s purported banking scandals and Mafioso ties.
After Albino Luciani, aka Pope John Paul I (Richard O’Callaghan in a moving performance), replaced Pope Paul in 1978, he lasted only 33 days as the pontiff, triggering conspiracy theories about foul play in the Vatican. Thus the sheer genius of casting Suchet as Vatican powerbroker Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, who investigates the death of the benevolent man who turned out to be far more liberal than the conclave of cardinals had expected, and only wore the shoes of the fisherman for a month before his mysterious death. His demise occurred shortly after he purportedly attempted to remove entrenched Vatican bureaucrats from their sinecures of power. Suchet’s sleuth lives again -- although not as a suave Belgian in this theatrical whodunit. This time he’s an Italian cardinal trying to crack the case of: Who murdered the pope?
But this is a detective case unfolding in the corridors of power. And, as it is the Vatican -- and not the White House, like in TV’s Scandal series -- where the story takes place, the subject matter includes the significance of faith. The playwright does an excellent, even philosophical job, of interweaving Christian beliefs with Vatican faction fights (move over Trotsky and Stalin! The Kremlin has nothing on the Vatican!).
The acting is flawless, and well-directed by the aptly monikered Jonathan Church. Some standouts in the large cast include Stuart Milligan, as the blustery, Chicago-born Bishop Marcinkus, who singlehandedly revives the term “the ugly American” and gives new meaning to “papal bull.” As the African Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Roy Lewis imbues his character with dignity as he strives to reform a church whose membership now largely resides in the Third World. The only thing this drama lacks are female roles -- after all, the priesthood and papacy are patriarchal, nearly all-male domains. In a small role as the play’s only woman, UK actress Sheila Ferris portrays Sister Vicenza, a loyal nun, who lets fly a quip that may well be a droll sexual double entendre.
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The costumes by Fotini Dimou impart and reinforce the realism necessary to convey the pontifical subject matter. William Dudley’s stage design likewise conveys a sense of being inside the Vatican, and his use of cage-like sets is, well, a cagey way of expressing a sensibility of imprisonment and crime.
Roger Crane is, unsurprisingly, an attorney, but it is quite shocking that this script, suggested by what may have been actual events, is the playwright’s first produced drama. Kudos, Mr. Crane! The Ahmanson Theatre’s ambitious production is the second stop on an international tour for this taut, thought-provoking play about conspiracy theories at the very highest levels of the Bishop of Rome’s realm. It is very astute to present this show just as another reformist-minded pope rocks Christendom.
With what appears murder most foul afoot, will Suchet, like Inspector Poirot, get his man? You’ll just have to find out for yourself by high-footing it Downtown to the Music Center. Your humble scribe doesn’t mean to pontificate, but original, modern drama written for the stage doesn’t get much better than this work, which is reminiscent of Jean Anouilh’s Becket. And your critic must confess, that’s the god’s honest truth.
The Last Confession is playing Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30 p.m. (a 2:00 p.m. performance has been added for Thursday, June 26), through July 6 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012. For more info: www.centertheatregroup.org/; (213)628-2772.
L.A.-based reviewer Ed Rampell co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.” (See: http://hawaiimtvbook.weebly.com/.) Rampell and co-author Luis Reyes will be signing books at the Egyptian Theatre’s 10th Annual Tiki Night Sunday, June 28 at, 7:00 p.m., at 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028. (See: http://www.americancinemathequecalendar.com/content/10th-annual-tiki-night-%E2%80%9Cplastic-paradise-a-swingin-trip-through-americas-polynesian-obsessio)