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Transcendence found in a ‘Fools’ Mass’


Midnight Mass is about to begin. The congregants are arriving. Nervous choir members escort people to their seats and wander about anxiously dusting the seats and muttering to themselves. Then one discovers the priest has just died.

So begins “Fools’ Mass,” a delightful performance by Dzieci, an international experimental theater ensemble based in New York. Dzieci (pronounced “djyeh-chee”), which means “children” in Polish, was founded by actor Matt Mitler in 1997. Their mission declaration states that this theater group is dedicated to the search for the sacred through the medium of theater.

The choir members are 16th-century peasants, with dirty faces, unkempt hair and missing teeth. They are the mentally and physically handicapped castoffs of society who have been transformed by their priest, Father Jerzy, into an idiot savant choir. Mitler said his group was looking for a way to understand the Mass that would approach the innocence and acceptance of a child.

The 13 cast members do just that. They draw the audience in with their childlike attempts to perform the Christmas Mass for the already assembled congregation. They start with what they remember, running to the back of the church, in this case the chantry of Grace Episcopal Church in Manhattan, and then they process in singing the Introit. Confusion and mayhem erupt at times as they proceed, asking each other what’s next. Mitler’s character tearfully apologizes for not being able to make the Mass beautiful like Father Jerzy. “We make it ugly,” he cries, explaining that Father Jerzy was “very close to God” and made them feel “a little bit next to him.” He tells the audience -- his congregation -- that they are here to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the important thing is to come together. “Please don’t leave. We try to make the Christmas Mass some way.”

They struggle with the readings, even recruiting an audience member for one. They fight over the Communion bread until one member holds it up high, breaks it and begins singing “Agnus Dei.” Calmed by this, the others take pieces, break them and share them with the audience. This sacramental transformation carries them through to the end, when one member tells the audience to go in peace and puts her finger to her lips for them to go in silence as well. No curtain calls and applause for this performance, only a feeling of peace and transformation. Cast members, staying in character, greet the audience outside the church, wishing them Happy Christmas.

“Fools’ Mass” was developed after Dzieci members began adapting and rehearsing Aldous Huxley’s historical treatise, “The Devils of Loudon,” about a group of 17th-century Ursuline nuns who feign madness and are declared to have been possessed by the charismatic priest, Fr. Urban Grandier, who is imprisoned, tortured and martyred. The theatrical group felt it was important to know more about the Catholic Mass. Their interest led them to create “Fools’ Mass.” Because so many of the hymns and chants they encountered dealt with Jesus’ birth and Mary his mother, they decided to make it a Christmas show. Tickets were by donation only.

The show has historical roots, Mitler said, explaining that in the Middle Ages a town’s people and peasants were allowed one day each year to take on the roles of religious and political leaders, mocking them in parades and performances to “blow off steam so it wouldn’t happen the rest of the year.” Mocking the Mass was part of this tradition.

Mitler wanted to build on this medieval tradition while still being respectful of the Mass.

They created a fictional parish in which the priest has taken in all the marginal people -- the blind, the deaf and mentally and physically handicapped -- and trained them to sing. “When they sing they are perfect, complete people, at one with something holy,” Mitler says. “In the church these people have a life. The priest has created a family.”

The priest is named for Jerzy Grotowski, a theater mentor of Mitler’s who died in 1999. Mitler said as a group Dzieci members felt they had lost their pastor when Grotowski died because he was one who ministered to poor theater artists. The piece was dedicated to him.

Mitler, 46, said he and the other performers wondered at first if the show would offend people, but said clergy members and general audiences have been supportive, so much so that they were invited back to Grace Church for a fourth year this season and given a residency there as well. He said the play represents sin and redemption, with the out-of-control characters coming together to create a religious ritual that is deeply moving. “They try to sabotage each other at first and then they feel remorse. Out of that remorse something transcendent finally happens.”

Dzieci members have an understanding for their characters because to become a part of the group, they must participate in outreach to the mentally and physically disabled. “We’re using theater as an act of service in the real Christian sense of the word,” Mitler says. “It also has a humbling effect on how we act.” Each of Dzieci’s members has a spiritual practice, said Mitler, who is Jewish, and theater is their shared spiritual practice.

Originally trained in psychotherapy, Mitler has led workshops in a variety of settings including Hutchings Psychiatric Center in New York, the University of Warsaw and the National Theater School of Sweden. Each Christmas Eve, Dzieci members dress as elves and perform for the young psychiatric patients at Stony Lodge Hospital in New York. They have also performed several times at New York’s Cabrini Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation’s therapeutic recreation program.

“We work with these people. At first it seems there’s a huge gulf that seems almost impassible,” Mitler said, explaining that the performers learn to see beyond the sometimes unpleasant appearance of the patients they interact with. In the same way, audience members at “Fools’ Mass” are transformed. “They are repulsed by us at first, but in the end they see something else. We become together a community.”

Retta Blaney, a theater and religion writer in New York, is editor of the anthology Journalism: Stories from the Real World.

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National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002