The life of St. Francis of Assisi was a dramatic one. The child of a wealthy Italian merchant, he had a 12th-century playboy youth, went to war and spent a year in captivity. He had mystical visions, stole from his disapproving father to give to the church and devoted himself to a life of poverty in imitation of Christ, founding a religious order. He saw God in nature, thanking the sun, preaching to birds — setting an example of equality and ecology followed by many, including the current Pope.
Very little of this drama registers in “God’s Fool,” the dance theater work about Francis that opened at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater on Thursday. And despite being conceived and directed by Martha Clarke, the creator of many acclaimed dance theater pieces, “God’s Fool” contains very little dance theater.
Instead, Francis (Patrick Andrews) and his followers mostly wander around a gravel-strewn stage in friars’ robes, talking about God and faith. When in doubt, they sing.
That’s not a problem in itself, since the singing, mostly unaccompanied, is excellent. Arranged and directed by Arthur Solari, it helps establish the world from the start, as the cloaked cast enters intoning an Easter vigil. And the frequent retreat into song gives a sense of a confused flock clinging to fellowship.
But the singing does contribute to some of the show’s confusion of time and genre. The selections stray from Francis’s time into an African American spiritual and some Gustav Mahler. When Francis breaks into a Broadway-style duet of the American folk song “Wayfaring Stranger” with Clare, the female member of his flock, we’re definitely not in Assisi anymore.
Andrews’s Francis is wholly American, a lost boy. In manner, he wouldn’t seem out of place in a David Mamet play or maybe “Rent.” He does big swings of mood, laughing hysterically, weeping when necessary, mooning over nature like a Beat poet. The saint must have been disruptive, bewildering figure, but when Francis’s exasperated father calls him a bum and a brat, it feels all-too accurate.
This central performance is at odds with Fanny Howe’s poetic text. The script is spare, alternating between soliloquies and scenes that aren’t naturalistic dialogue but exchanges of fragments. A representative one goes like this:
Francis: Beat me Leo.
Leo: I can’t beat you Francis.
Luca: You should join the circus, Francis.
Francis: I should die.
The delivery makes this and many similar exchanges unintentionally comic. The veteran performance artist John Kelly, playing a red-horned devil who accompanies Francis and his followers, contributes some intentional comedy and commedia dell’arte flavor. But neither Kelly nor oversize animal heads (masks by Margie Jervis) nor between-scenes bits of movement (everyone blown by the wind or carrying Francis aloft) compensate enough to give the production the strangeness and wonder it needs.
And so, while some of the dramatic incidents in Francis’s life are covered — abuse from his father, the preaching to birds, the appearance of stigmata and, more boldly, kissing Clare and the devil — almost nothing comes across convincingly or illustratingly.
What resonates, along with the singing, is something unsung but late in Howe’s words: “revelations of a world just an inch from our senses, like perfumes you can’t see, perfumes you catch from a May tree.” What “God’s Fool” might have revealed.
Through July 2 at Ellen Stewart Theater; lamama.org.