Murder in the Cathedral in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

T.S. Eliot’s work has a way of marking out important moments in my intellectual life: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is the first poem I ever loved; “The Waste Land” the first with which I had a long term relationship. So it’s fitting that I christened my move to Brooklyn, and the beginning of grad school, by seeing a site-specific production of Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral” – the story of Thomas Becket’s assassination – at the Church of St. Joseph in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

The story: Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, returns to England after seven years of exile. He’s just barely reconciled with King Henry II, to whom Becket used to be a close confidante. The peace, for whatever reason, doesn’t last and four knights go to Canterbury to murder the Archbishop. About three years after his assassination, Becket is canonized. Look it up on Wikipedia.

In Eliot’s play, the four knights double as four tempters, each approaching newly returned Becket (played by Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.) and offering a course of action. The first three parallel the temptations of Christ: physical comfort and safety, power, and treachery. Director Alec Duffy had each of the tempters wheeled down the center aisle at breakneck speed, accompanied by lumieres, and dressed in powersuits. Each were able, but it was the fourth tempter (played by Jordan Coughtry), and the temptation offered, that cut the deepest. This tempter offered martyrdom. In other words, exactly what Becket wants. In this scene, Coughtry, dressed as a saint, chases Simmons through the church and into the confessional, where a portion of the scene takes place out of the audience’s sight.

The confessional scene was effective, but it is Simmons’s delivery of the Christmas Sermon at the pulpit that shifted the production from a good performance to something a little more eerie. The sermon opens the second act of the play, after a brief intermission (during which, by the way, you can purchase and imbibe beer in the church). I have to admit that I wasn’t yet paying attention when Simmons began to speak and found myself, not for the first time in the production, looking around the church to find the source of an echoed voice. Simmons’s delivery is perfect. At the end of the sermon, audience members crossed themselves at the doxology and, after Simmons’ amen, murmured its repetition.

“Murder in the Cathedral” was first performed in the Chapter House of the Canterbury Cathedral. I can see why this production also uses a church as a stage. It’s one thing to see actors, dressed as clergy, barring doors against four actors dressed as murderous knights. But in this production, the actors barricade real church doors, locking us in with them, inviting us to feel a tiny bit of collective dread as Becket orders his men to let his assassins inside.

Directed by Alec Duffy with music by Dave Malloy, plays through October 2 [EXTENDED through October 10]. Thursdays – Saturdays at 7:30 PM and Sundays at 2 PM. Admission is a suggested donation of $10, though they say “No one turned away.” And if you go in a group of 4 or more, admission is $5. The Church of St. Joseph is at 856 Pacific Street in Brooklyn, between Vanderbilt and Underhill. Official Website.


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