Review: At the Vatican Falls, Victims of Sexual Abuse Wage War on the Catholic Church
Romans 12:19 says, “Never take revenge, but indulge in the wrath of God,” which sounds like a clever way the wicked convince their victims that they will someday get justice. Fortunately, Catholics do not read the Bible, thus providing the basis for Vatican Falls, Frank J. Avella’s revenge fantasy for victims of priestly sexual abuse, now makes its world premiere at The Tank. Ambitious, imaginative and totally bizarre, it offers several surprises to the audience, not all of them great.
We think we see where Vatican Falls starts from the oldest scene, which introduces us to Vi (Tucker Aust), Charlie (Danny Hilt) and Matt (Jeremiah Clapp), members of the Boston chapter of Survivors of Catholic Abuse Refuge (or SCAR). We prepare for two and a half hours of tearful monologues about the terrible abuse these men suffered as boys at the hands of trusted clerics.
As they meet around Dunkin’, fellow countryman Riccardo (Ace Young) shares espresso and cannoli with Claudia (Carlotta Brentan), an attractive young Vatican employee. Riccardo is in Rome to launch SCAR’s master plan, which involves cybercrime, kidnappings and spectacular acts of violence committed against the Roman Catholic Church. Suddenly, this support group reveals itself for what it really is: a terrorist cell.
And given the crimes they avenge, it’s easy to support the terrorists, even if their plans don’t seem entirely thought out. Claudia is a kind of double agent. They also work with a source codenamed La Farfalla (Jacopo Costantini). The Italian characters tend to speak in the third person with an irritating mix of English and Italian: “I can’t imagine the pain…confusion…East horrible… It’s good that you tell Claudia,” she remarks when Riccardo talks about his history of abuse. It’s the first indication that this piece is a bit of mortadella.
At least Vatican Falls has a fascinating villain in the form of Father David, upon whom Edward L. Simon bestows a boyish innocence that helps us understand how the priest justified his own heinous behavior: “I was practically a boy myself,” claims the priest, while also assuming the role of protector of this family. Riccardo’s widowed mother, Teresa (an overworked Alice Barrett-Mitchell), certainly treats him like the man of the house, trusting him completely. We grasp the terrible price of this blind faith through the silent figure of Riccardo’s younger brother, Peter (James Gracia, whose watchful eyes constitute the most moving performance of the evening).
More in line with Avella’s action-movie script is a hellish prelate called only “Monsignor,” whom Ryan Wright plays as a cocky butler who wields power over the Vatican bank. As the fabulously sassy and frighteningly wrathful leader of SCAR, Aust plays Vi as a high-heeled angel of death. Thankfully offering comic relief, Hilt is very funny as Masshole Mrs. Malaprop: “I don’t fancy getting water-ballooned by the Feds,” he tells his co-conspirators, obviously referring to a other heightened interrogation technical but nevertheless evoking a lovely image.
young, old american idol contestant who appeared on Broadway in Hair and Fat, gives an emotionally engaged performance as a man deeply troubled by his past and uncertain about his future. He flaunts his beautiful singing voice in the second-act number “Sunday Mourning,” which brings the show to a halt, not because it’s so good, but because he’s literally doing nothing to advance the plot. It’s a bit like when Bette Midler starts singing in Hocus Pocus 2 — the song is suspected to be in the contract.
This moment is so shocking because it’s out of step with the production of Avella (the playwright co-directed with Brentan), who jumps between short cinematic scenes set across years and continents. Tony DiBernardo’s set of platforms features levels and multiple configurations, allowing performers to instantly transport us to any space. Shirlee Idzakovich’s costumes do the job (she particularly has fun with Vi), while Zëk Stewart’s sound design and David Shocket’s lighting (a tower of LEDs becomes stained glass) further aid our imaginations. Thanks to sheer theatrics, Avella pulls it off most of the time – however, the moment we see an actor miming electrocution (he writhes in pain as the lights go on and off), we suspect the Avella’s Hollywood blockbuster ambition crashed against the physical and economic limits of off-off-Broadway.
Still, Avella is to be admired for writing a piece on this subject that doesn’t just wallow in victimhood. In their highly fantastical way, these characters defend themselves and act. It may not be very Christian, but it is undeniably dramatic.