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Saint Francis and the Sultan

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If we had a person like Francis in the world today, would we listen to him or her any more than the Sultan does in Hickenlooper’s play?

Saint Francis and the Sultan
by George Hickenlooper, Sr.
First Run Theatre
Directed by Jim Meady
Through January 22, 2006

This was the first production of George Hickenlooper’s play, Saint Francis and the Sultan. The goal of First Run Theatre Company—founded by and, until the end of last year, headed by the late Donald Weiss—is to give full stage productions to new plays by St. Louis playwrights.

The play, directed by Jim Meady, depicts the visit of Saint Francis of Assisi to the Sultan of Egypt in 1219. Traveling with his disciple, Illuminato, Francis is captured and taken to the Sultan, who listens to him, instead of beheading him, despite the advice of those around him. Francis is not tempted by the belongings of the Sultan, but his companion, Illuminato, is not so fortunate. Drawn into a veil of deceit and lies, Illuminato lets himself and his brother Francis down, finding out in the process that his faith wasn’t quite so great as he’d thought.

This action is framed by an older Illuminato, many years later and on his death bed, recounting the story of the trip to a biographer and his nurse. The old Illuminato sat at one end of the stage, from the moment the audience entered the theater (before the curtain went up) until the end of the production, moving about only in the darkness of intermission. The main action took place in the middle of the stage, amid a sultan-worthy backdrop of red drapes between gold entryways, a roomy throne, and a writing table.

At times the two periods of action interacted, as when a young Illuminato handed a scarf off to the nurse of the old Illuminato, and when the main action picks up in the middle of sentences spoken by the older man. There are delightful exchanges early in the play regarding language, when the characters, all speaking English, noted other characters’ use of different languages. In another amusing line, the older Illuminato states that Francis often wore little at all, while the young Francis, on his way to visit the Sultan, did indeed squat on the stage in his skivvies. The language of Saint Francis and the Sultan was playful, intelligent, and interesting throughout.

The play gets a full, though not necessarily professional, production by First Run, and hence is beset with the joys and sorrows sometimes found in all-volunteer theater, such as overly dramatic acting and blocking, and self-destructing props; still, despite these handicaps, Hickenlooper’s script was able to shine.

Brad Slavik portrayed a childlike and goofy Francesco, the happy saint who refused to be called such, but he was not without the human traits of irritation and sadness, when appropriate. Mark Maloney satisfied as the old Illuminato, indeed managing to appear dead well before his character actually was. Although the play’s title hints at its focus being on Francis, it is as much about Illuminato. It is Illuminato we see in the battles of temptation, regret, and confession, not Francis. It is Illuminato’s loves and losses to which we most easily relate. And it is Illuminato who tells the story. I found myself wondering if the play might be better if it were set up as Illuminato’s story, rather than Francis’.

Other notable performances included Tom Moore, who presented a Sultan with an odd mix of cockiness, sadistic grins, and calm conversation. Ralph Murphy was enjoyable in the role of the Sultan’s advisor, Al-Farisi, a devious, ruthless old man with no qualms about attaining what he wants.

Hickenlooper, a professor of English at Lindenwood University, states in the playbill that he “likes to use history as a kind of mirror of the present.” In his director’s notes, Meady asks, if we had “a person like Francis in the world today, would we listen to him or her any more than the Sultan does in George’s play?” I suspect I know the answer to that, and wonder if 800 years from now, there might be another play, in another city, asking the same questions.

First Run Theatre presents George Hickenlooper’s Saint Francis and the Sultan through January 22 at the Thomas Hunter Theater at De Smet High School (233 N. Ballas Road, Creve Coeur). Showtimes are at 8 p.m. Thursday & Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday; there is no show on Friday. Tickets are $12 adults, $8 students/seniors, available at the box office or online at www.firstruntheatre.com.
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