Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Advent 4: Fools' Mass


It’s the last Sunday of Advent. The Dzieci are already there preparing when I get to church. I check my email and see that Matt and I have had some disagreement over how the morning  should run. But I decide to go his way.

They station fools at both Amsterdam and 86th street entrances, greeting people, bringing them inside. In the sanctuary, Jeremy is playing variations on O come O come, Emmanuel as the pews begin to fill. Visitors. thatcher has come back from Westchester.And then, shortly after 11, the fools begin to lead people from the sanctuary to the chapel, which fills to overflowing.

As it begins, there is that usual sense of tension as the congregation, many who have not seen the Mass before, wonders what is going on as a cacophony of foolery breaks out around them. You also have to get over that PC anxiety as to whether what they are portraying is appropriate or exploitative. But slowly the individual characters begin to establish themselves and communicate who they are.

And soon enough, it is clear  that Father Jose is not only sick, but dead and the fools will have to conduct the mass themselves if  there is to be one. And within the rough outlines of a traditional Eucharistic liturgy, the Fools' Mass proceeds.

It’s classic Grotowski with deep respect for ritual, as archetype, not doctrinal symbol. Commedia del arte buffoonery and Peter Brooks visual esthetic. The story itself touches us at many levels. The ways the fools sing, in perfect harmony, reminds me of my visits to nursing homes when patients in serious states of withdrawn dementia sing hymns in full voice. Even though the fools twist words and mash up scripture in brilliant foolishness, it’s clear they understand the deepest meaning of what they are about.

And after now seeing this over four productions, the embodiment of incarnational spirit is so clear that I now understand why I intuitively wanted to make this performance an annual Advent event. Father Jose had to conduct the mass, but he had made the fools a choir. Taught them to sing. And now they would do the mass themselves. As Teddy (of blessed memory) said when he first saw the production, when the one who takes care of you isn't there any more, we have to figure out how to take care of each other. In that sense, it could also be seen as a reflection on the absence/silence of God. And the Fools are those on our steps and in the sanctuary every day.

And then the Mass is over. The fools file out in silence. I lead the congregants back to the sanctuary. The fools are invited in for an applause  of gratitude. And they remain in character. Then leave and come back for a brief conversation. The head fool, Matt, asks me for a prayer of blessing. I draw us into our traditional circle. Pray. And then we sing Amen together. I look around at fools and congregants interspersed.
All Fools  together

We are all fools together. Even my producer trained in the Disney tradition is moved. This was clearly our best shared experience of the Mass yet. The Dzieci are part of our shared community. We share embraces. Depart. The mass is over.

On the steps, Thatcher says to me, You people are doing important work here. 

All fools together.

For previous years' productions, see

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