Around The Town

Fools Mass – Unexpected Solace

By: Alix Cohen

The Trickster and The Fool are alive within all of us. The Fool is an archetype that holds universal wisdom, crosses mutable boundaries, and speaks truth in a way that is accessible to all. Through trust, relaxation, and improvisation, we discover a practice of service through the healing power of anarchy, laughter, and simplicity. Dzieci Theatre

By: Alix Cohen

The Trickster and The Fool are alive within all of us. The Fool is an archetype that holds universal wisdom, crosses mutable boundaries, and speaks truth in a way that is accessible to all. Through trust, relaxation, and improvisation, we discover a practice of service through the healing power of anarchy, laughter, and simplicity. Dzieci Theatre

Originating in the Middle Ages, the Feast of Fools elected a pope or bishop and satirized ecclesiastical ritual. In turnabout, people representing the poor, infirm and mad lead “festivities.” By the 13thcentury, these had become a burlesque of Christianity, but it wasn’t until three centuries later they were outlawed.

Photo by Jim Moore: Megan Bones, Amanda Miller, Andy Allis, Ryan Castalia, Justin Filpes (in back), Matt Mitler, Jesse Hathaway

2023 is the 25th anniversary of Dzieci’s interpretation, Fools Mass, performed in multiple churches each December. We’re at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Except for seating towards the very back, the edifice is wide open. “Divine Pathways,” an installation of satin ribbons, hangs down from the ceiling. I’m told dreams are written on those parts closest to the top. Slowly the maimed and confused venture forth, each in his/her own world, shy, curious, anticipating the Service.

Costumes reflect the painting of Bruegel the Elder. Ragged and dirty, with soot employed as make-up and the most artful mouthpieces of wrong teeth I’ve ever seen, characters gambol among the pillars, advance and retreat, make sounds attempting speech.

Waldek, a cripple (poignant Ryan Castalia), seems to be asking for alms or mercy. Young, bent Bete (Stephanie Regina) gallops and growls. Bearded Lilith (Andy Allis in a dress) skips, twirls, and giggles sweetly holding her skirt. We weave behind tall Orlando (Justin Filpes) until Emmanuel, an elder with a staff (Matt Mitler), querulously cautions that our leader is blind. Orlando seems to tap into something essential. Koldo, a big, high spirited man (Jesse Hathaway, exuding innocence) ringing the Mass bell is told he’s too early. “Why are there so many people?” someone mutters. There’s little spoken language.  

Photo by Nathan Tucker: Megan Bones (with spoon), Stephanie Regina (top), Justin Filpes (center bottom), Matt Mitler (with stick)

Shepherded behind the altar to the St. James Chapel, everyone takes seats. Candles are lit. Confused himself, Emmanuel half-heartedly tries to impose order. “Breeeaaaddd,” moans Waldek, cradling a rough, round loaf. Bete tries to snatch it. Gunhildr (Megan Bones) carries a large Bible. Koldo walks to the front gleefully sprinking Holy Water on us, then tries to drink the rest. “Stop!” Suddenly it’s very quiet. Everyone looks expectantly toward a passage. At last Waldek goes to find the priest. He returns with a purple biretta. “The Father is dead!” Shock. Sadness. Uncertainty.

“Sorry, sorry, very sorry,” whimpers Emmanuel, hitting himself in the head. “Now is the time for the Mass,” a voice among them beseeches. Bewilderment reigns. Up and down the aisle the group walks behind Orlando, arms around or holding on to one another. “No!” shouts volatile Bete diving down to a stone bench. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” mutters Emmanuel. They sing in Latin: “King of Heaven, Lord of the rough earth. the brilliant Titan and the resounding sea…” (We have translated programs.) It’s a lovely Gregorian chant. All bow. Not to us.

“Now is the time for reading,” Orlando reminds. An audience member is conscripted to read The Old Testament. Whenever she says “Yawyeh” (God of the Israelites), those assembled repeat with reverence. (At another juncture, Koldo petitions Mohamed.) Afterwards, one supplicant cleans the stranger’s boots, another hugs her, a third puts his head on her chest. She returns to her seat.

Photo by Eva Kobli: Stephanie Regina, Mazal Karlick, Ryan Castalia, Amanda Miller Jesse Hathaway, Justin Filpes,Megan Bones, Matt Mitler
Photo by Eva Kobli: Stephanie Regina, Mazal Karlick, Ryan Castalia, Amanda Miller Jesse Hathaway, Justin Filpes,Megan Bones, Matt Mitler

“Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Chaos resumes. Participants shout, argue, wordlessly sing. “Now it’s time for the Gospel,” the blind man says gently. “GOSPEL!” shouts Koldo joyfully raising his arms. He infectiously winds his way through the audience raising our arms. Some volunteer.

“This is the Gospel according to Mark,” says a Orlando opening the Bible. “The Gospel of Matthew!” Gunhildr calls out. “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain…” Sounds of agreement.  “Lo, Jesus went down the mountain…” Then up, then down. All are rapt. Lilith walks a spooned audience member to the front. The pair mimes knocking on doors in Bethlehem. “Room?” “NO!” “Room?” “NO!” Room?” “NO!” “Room?” “Yes! – A manger?! Lilith looks up. “An angel.” Hands flutter around and behind her.

The ragtag group attempts what of The Mass can be remembered. There’s Confession, Fraction and Consecration, Offering (an old sack is passed on a long stick, one woman uses her apron, Waldek extends his hat. We give willingly), The Nativity (pictorially assembled), Anthem, Hymn, Communion, Agnus Dei, Novus Annus – for those of you familiar. (I am not.)

Photo by Nathan Tucker: Mazal Karlick, Jesse Hathaway, Ryan Castalia, Justin Filpes, Stephanie Regina (front), Megan Bones (back), Matt Mitler, Andy Allis, Amanda Miller

It’s unnecessary to know the meaning or derivation of each. These are parentheses through which we pass, in which some find reason or solace. Short hymns in Latin, German, and French act as bridges. As does disruption. At one point, we’re fed morsels of bread. At another, individuals come to take our hands, a few kneel. The chapel is quiet, moved. We even sing Latin briefly, repeating line after line. 
“May the blessings of the Lord be with you always.”

The Service is beautifully written and, I’m told, partly improvised. It’s directed by founder Matt Mitler, trained in Humanistic and Existential Psychology and Group Process before discovering the healing potential of theater. Conducted with small, on site groups, observance is intimate. Despite framing, it’s also somehow universal. Pick your group of downtrodden, needy, outcasts, born or maimed – theater people, if you like; pick your geography of peace.

Acting is masterful. Each thespian has created a physical and mental persona maintained even after we pass them exiting the chapel. Focus is complete. Expressions are marvelous. Fools Mass is extraordinary theater, but it feels like communal devotion. And for an hour, the universe listens.

Photo by Jim Moore: Matt Mitler

Costumes by Karen Hatt are worthy of Tableau Vivant representing Bruegel. Each is beautifully and accurately detailed with layers, ties, and headpieces. Make-up and teeth are inspired.

Dzieci (djyeh-chee) is an experimental theatre ensemble dedicated to a search for the “sacred” through the medium of theatre. Integrating techniques garnered from such theatre masters as Jerzy Grotowski, Eugenio Barba and Peter Brook, ritual forms derived from Native American and Eastern spiritual disciplines, and an ethic based securely in Humanistic Psychology, Dzieci aims to create a theatre that is as equally engaged with personal transformation as it is with public presentation. “Dzieci” is the Polish word for “Children”.

Cover art courtesy of Dzieci Theatre

Dzieci Theatre offers other shows and services. 

Fool’s Mass
Dzieci Theatre
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine
December 16, 2023