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Murder in the Cathedral comes off with style


A Student Workshop production.

Written by T. S. Eliot.

Directed by Lindasusan Ulrich '91.

Starring Brecht Isbell '91.

MIT Chapel, Feb. 1-3, 8:15 pm.


WITH SEVERAL THINGS in its favor, the Student Workshop production of Murder in the Cathedral comes off with success. Directed by Lindasusan Ulrich '91, this Shakespearean-like play by T. S. Eliot flourishes with a well-chosen cast and an ideal stage setting.

Eliot centers the play around Archbishop Thomas Becket (Brecht Isbell '91), who returns to the town of Canterbury after a seven-year absence. Brought to his powerful position under the auspices of King Henry II, Becket's refusal to unite the powers of the church with those of the king marked him as a traitor and resulted in his subsequent flight from London. A makeshift peace between the king and Becket allows the priest's homecoming, but the treaty is one of dubious stability. Thus, the news of the archbishop's return is met with both joy and trepidation by the townfolk and local priests.

Once back in Canterbury, Becket is greeted by the temptations that corrupted him before. More of his past is revealed as the play progresses, giving the audience a sense for how far Becket has traveled along the path of repentance. But even as Becket makes his peace with God, the king's revenge is still impending.

Eliot has written a beautiful play that alternates between being powerful and preachy. In certain scenes, the characters address the audience directly. These asides, combined with the intimate atmosphere of the chapel, draw the audience into the play. The cast performs well, breathing emotion into Eliot's lyrical lines, often in a choral reading style. Isbell is particularly strong as Becket.

One of two most memorable scenes takes place between the First Tempter (Anita Roy Dobbs) and Becket. Dobbs obviously enjoys her deliciously mischievous role representing the temptations of the flesh. The second memorable scene, where Becket meets with his death, is a fitting climax and makes the entire play. Seeing the well-choreographed action and being surrounded by the rising rhythm of actors' voices, one can't help but be swept up into the tension of the scene.

Overall, the chapel setting works well. Director Ulrich has compensated for the minor drawbacks of inflexible lighting and reverberating acoustics by skillfully incorporating them into the action of the play. The production lacks the luxury of spotlighting and lighting control for mood changes, and the actors must avoid letting the echoes in the chapel blur their words. Otherwise, the unique situation is explored to its fullest advantage. Most action occurs in the light over the altar, and occasionally one notices that the tempters and evil knights remain at the light's edge, cast in sinister shadow.

Ulrich has best used the acoustics of the chapel. The room is easily filled with sound during the play's climactic scene. The acoustics also allow her to place people with their backs to the audience and still have their voices be heard.

Seeing this play performed in the chapel is quite inspirational. The setting provides a surrealism that underscores the symbolism that Eliot loved to use. One couldn't imagine a better place to perform a murder.