Surreal ‘Saint Plays’ series examines sufferings of martyrs

By Cory Bilicko
Arts and Entertainment Writer

Playwright Erik Ehn doesn’t profess to fully comprehend the subject matter that he presents in his work; the plays he writes are intended more as spiritual and intellectual forums to which the audience brings its own schemas and, as a result, his artistic forms can be just as mystifying as the themes he explores.
In Cal Rep’s current production of Ehn’s “The Saint Plays,” part of a multi-storied fantasia-in-progress that dramatizes the demises of saints (possibly up to 10,000 of them eventually), those forms renovate the National Guard armory downtown into a phantasmagoric site that seems more like the set of a Fellini flick than a military arsenal.
With each in the cast of 15 either playing flute, beating a box drum, animating puppets or crooning at the least, often in garb that calls to mind the body-extending costuming of Martha Graham productions, he or she contributes a percussive and lyrical pulse that carries the saint stories seamlessly to the end. Even the shoveling of sand in the dramatically illuminated 400-square-foot sandbox supplies a heartbeat, perhaps to suggest that the lives of these saints are still kicking and, as Ehn says, “constant forces in the world that aid us in our growth.”
Within examinations of the lives of Joan of Arc and Rose of Lima, among other more obscure saints, one motif is clear: the pariah as foundation for sainthood. They are told “you’re too strange to live,” called “a freak” by the pope, and lament the “pious speculations and outright hate,” words as relevant in a 1431 ecclesiastical court as in a 2008 Oxnard junior high school.
Under the direction of Anne Justine D’Zmura, this five-part production is distinguished by the fact that her company is presenting the world premiere of the fifth saint play, “Color Drum,” which is still being developed as Cal Rep performs it.
Yet this piece, as well as the four that precede it in this opus, already feels solidified, but that too could be just an illusion; it’s hard to tell with the sustained, mesmerizing, rhythmic flow of icons, avian motifs, and juxtapositions of historical and modern sounds.
“The Saint Plays” is the kind of work that can live on, ever shape-shifting to reflect, or challenge, the zeitgeist, just like saints Joan and Rose did.
“The Saint Plays” will transcend the Long Beach National Guard Armory at 854 East 7th Street through March 15. General admission tickets are $20, $17 for students (with valid ID), and $15 for seniors (55 and older). Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7 p.m., and Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.
For tickets and information call (562) 985-5526 or visit

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