From the vantage point of a theater seat, faith is a fragile commodity.
Sure, we’ve entered into the Suspension of Disbelief Contract as audience members, we’ll accept what we are about to experience as our world for the next hour or two. In exchange, the director, playwright and performers create that world with not only their talents but their own willingness to surrender to the material.
But, faith devotion to an idea that we cannot produce in tangible form that’s a tougher circus act to execute.
A pair of plays currently running on Rogue Valley stages turn this notion inside out as their characters walk the high wire between their own certitude and the reality of their situations ... and take their audiences along for the ride.
As shows, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and “Summerland” couldn’t be more different in tone and exploration.
“Lapin Agile,” the comedy written by Steve Martin that’s on stage at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre until Nov. 11, gives us Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein at the cusp of their recognized genius a choice of timing that presents them as relatable characters whose own beliefs in their talents are challenged not only by each other, but by their respective inability to pinpoint why beyond faith they know they are headed toward greatness.
In the midst of a head-to-head duel of certainty, they find common ground in this unable-to-define certainty.
“Before me, artists used to get ideas from the past,” Picasso says. “But, as of this moment, they are coming from the future.”
In agreement, Einstein explains that their respective beliefs are not of the world as it exists.
“We create a system and see if the facts can fit it,” he says. “We are creating a new way of looking at the world.”
“So,” Picasso responds, “you say you’re dreaming the impossible and put it into effect?”
In this moment, the ascending stars celebrate their brotherhood, and the audience (at least the one I was part of) is carried away with the exhilaration of the characters.
Given the luxury of history, we knew this breakthrough would have to come individually (the meeting in the play is a fiction), but to see Picasso and Einstein work through the process lets us in on the moment faith opens the door to discovery.
“Summerland,” presented by the Collaborative Theatre Project through Oct. 31, treats the tracks of faith and belief as trains set on a collision course. Whereas “Lapin Agile” allows its men of science and art to work together, the gothic mystery written by Arlitia Jones pits its protagonists against each other.
Infamous post-Civil War “spirit photographer” William Mumler whose demonstrated belief in the titular place where life extends beyond death drives his motives is challenged by the composite character of lawman Joseph Tooker, who wants to expose Mumler as a fraud but finds himself confronted by his own ghosts.
“The camera reveals what we cannot see,” Mumler tells Tooker, whose duty to expose the truth comes face-to-face with an inability to explain everything that happens around him.
Faith itself goes literally on trial in “Summerland” and if we the audience aren’t willing to believe in photographs that include more than their intended subjects, or a valley where fish and birds and even raccoons live with our dearly departed, we still become the play’s impartial jury.
Tooker is unwilling to verify things he cannot see, and uses that narrow focus to explain the existence of fraud. Einstein, his counterpart in “Lapin Agile,” is willing to embrace the unseen through scientifically based curiosity in order to expand the world around him.
It’s this difference that creates a conflict in “Summerland” that doesn’t exist in “Lapin Agile.”
As we dig deeper into Mumler and Tooker’s own civil war, the combatants start to question their grasp of the truth. Mumler’s sly smile after their first meeting is wiped away once a photo emerges with an unexpected (and seemingly impossible) presence standing behind Tooker a “spirit” that shakes the belief system of the closed-minded Chief Marshall.
When the play ends, we the jury file out to come to our own conclusions.
In “Lapin Agile,” we are led on the road to discovery as though we are patrons in the bar in which Picasso and Einstein meet. It’s only when an Elvis Ex Machina appears that their futures are spelled out to them. Those of us along for the ride are more interested in the journey.
When we see a play like “Summerland,” though, we are invited into its questions and left to our own devices. Mumler and Tooker, overwhelmed by their own conceits, have each lost his way with the considerable help of the play’s third point of the triangle, Mumler’s mysterious and predatory wife who manipulates both men with a demonic delight until their foundations are in tatters.
“All I can offer is my belief,” Mumler says after the battle is over, and both have lost.
“That,” Tooker laments, “brings me no comfort.”
Questions without answers. The nature of faith.
Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin, when not in the Uecker Seats at a local theater, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.