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The Archbishop's Ceiling

Nearly forty years after it was first produced, this little known play by Arthur Miller finally gets its regional premiere; curiously, the further time marches, the more relevant Miller's message becomes.

Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller
1915—2005
Photo: U.S. Dept. of State
Before he set pen to paper, Miller contemplated the events of the late '60's: massive marches in the U.S. protesting Nixon's secret invasion of Cambodia (expanding the war in Vietnam, eventually leading to Pol Pot's genocide [see the Academy Award-winning film, The Killing Fields]), barricades in Paris demanding the end of capitalism, and Alexander Dubček's Prague Spring crushed by an invasion of Soviet troops.

The critics were not kind to Mr. Miller, but let us be frank: The Pulitzer, Tony, and Emmy Award-winning writer pushed their buttons and they, in turn, could not bite the hand—the New York financial interests (i.e., the "too big to fail" banks and their corporations) that run the city, the country and, with London and Basel, the world—that feeds them. It was one thing for Miller to underscore the fundamentally hostile nature of capital to labor in Death of a Salesman and All My Sons and quite another for him to shine a light on the sociopaths at the top of power pyramid itself.

Thankfully, a few brave producers, including the Arvada Center, have mustered the gumption to revisit this biting examination of repression East and West. Kudos to all involved, whatever their reasons.

Rodney Lizcano as Adrian and Heather Lacy as Maya
Rodney Lizcano as Adrian
and Heather Lacy as Maya
Photo: P. Switzer
Adrian (Rodney Lizcano), an American novelist, returns to an Eastern Eurpean capital to visit friends and, hopefully, to revitalize his currently languishing manuscript, two years in the making. In short order, we are caught up in a cold war intrigue: in the former archbishop's residence—an elegant, if deteriorating, villa—Adrian catches up with Maya (Heather Lacy), a fellow writer and former lover. Maya works with Marcus (William Hahn), another of Adrian's old friends and one-time heralded novelist. Both Maya and Marcus are now in the employ of the state, charged with presenting the smiling face of monolithic authoritarianism to visiting artists, as well as to one of their great homegrown writers, Sigmund (Michael Morgan), whose novel-in-progress has just been confiscated by the internal security forces.

All the action takes place beneath the ceiling in the former Archbishop's living room and environs, with everyone, except Marcus' Danish companion, Irena (Adrian Egolf), calculating their comments due to the assumed bug (microphone) in the ceilling.

Adrian Egolf as Irena and William Hahn as Marcus
Adrian Egolf as Irina,
andWilliam Hahn as Marcus
Photo: P. Switzer
Intrigue is layered upon intrigue, while we are left to wonder whether Marcus and Maya support free speech or state censorship. Is Sigmund being encouraged to leave the country to save his life and seek greener pastures in U.S. academia, or is it a means of ridding this Iron Curtain satellite state of an effective and pesky critic? At the time the play was first produced—a quarter of a century before the collapse of the Soviet Union and over 40 years before the full extent of domestic U.S. spying operations, past and present, saw the light of day—one might easily nod in agreement with Adrian's claims that such state surveillance was unknown in the U.S.; but today, we laugh at Adrian's naïveté.

Nevertheless, Lizcano's sincere insistent voicing of Adrian's claims is vital to Miller's point, which is that Americans are oblivious to the nature of what they call their "government," suffering from the illusion (within The Matrix, as so well put metaphorically in that film) that it is a sovereign democratic republic, when in fact it is a public sector subsidiary of the international banking cartel and its corporations.

Heather Lacy as Maya and William Hahn as Marcus
Heather Lacy as Maya
and William Hahn as Marcus
Photo: P. Switzer
In their defense, Marcus and Maya's cynicism is based on realpolitik. Hahn and Lacy take Marcus' and Maya's studied duplicity to wonderfully ironic and sublime heights, doing their best to avoid letting state repression stand in the way of a good time and stimulating discussions.

And the discussions are stimulating, if a little arcane for any theatregoer ungrounded in the machinations of world politics. Miller takes the theatre of ideas up another level up from Shaw—his post-HUAC world being more complex. It is Sigmund who challenges both Adrian's and Marcus and Maya's points-of-view. Sigmund has no illusions about the state apparatus, speaking loudly in the direction of the ceiling, so that the-powers-that-be will not miss his criticism. In the end, it is Sigmund through whom Miller speaks regarding the imperatives of artists and citizens to those who would usurp government to enforce a larger tyranny. Morgan brings this home in a big way, leveraging the passion and unpredictability, with which Miller has infused Sigmund, into a tour de force.

Michael Morgan as Sigmund
Michael Morgan as Sigmund
Photo: P. Switzer
The mature writer that Miller was, at the time he wrote this, does not stop with political action. His final words come from Irena (a well-measured performance by Egolf), who is either oblivious to politics, as Sigmund characterizes her, or simply more interested in dancing and music (she is a pianist). Clearly, after conversations and direct actions have run their course, Miller concludes that there are plenty of ways to enjoy ourselves and our friends.

The Arvada Center's regional premiere of Arthur Miller's The Archbishop's Ceiling, deftly directed by Brett Aune, runs through April 19th. For tickets: 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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