At times such as Friday, when unfathomable tragedy rocks a town and in turn the entire nation, many gravitate to places of worship. From horror also often seems to arise the need to create, and experience, art. The urge to express or witness the expression of the unexpressable arises, and beauty inevitably comes of ugliness.
On Friday, I was invited by Sleepy Hollow Cemetery's Danielle Fontaine to attend the Dzieci (pronounced "djyeh-chee") theater group's Fools Mass, a show I can no more easily define now after I saw it than before. In a nut(house)shell, church service meets theater, in a way that might make some nervous, but I found it to be—and I think the audience agreed—a great success.
We are thrown immediately into the Dark Ages and the priest meant to conduct this "mass" has apparently come down with the Plague. So, the fools, who are usually just responsible for the music and not the mass itself, are left without their Father Jerzy and must put on this service on their own. What results is a "show" that goes through all the stages of a service from procession to readings, sermon, communion, war over bread, sharing of peace, song, and, since it's Christmas, a sacred babe.
These fools have wretched teeth, raggy outfits, one hard loaf, bad speech impediments. The blind man however is able to muster a sermon that proves quite poetic. (He had opened the night saying "I'm very sorry for all the people," which certainly resonated on this night.) Now his speech alluded to the fact that we are all pretty lost without a leader, left here to conduct this mass when we don't have a clue.
Nonetheless, he said, what results when imperfect folks join in song is just perfect.
The Dzieci group has more of a clue than their bumbling mess might let on. They've been doing this performance for 15 years, said company director, Matt Mitler, who happens to play the blind sermonizer. The sermon is improvised, he said, and changes for every show. He did consider the day's tragic events in the night's sermon but not overtly.
"Of course the tragedy factored into my sermon, but I didn't want to make it explicit," he said. "The sermon is improvised on the spot and has been for as long as we've been doing this piece. There was a lot of material to call upon, and I felt particularly blessed with what I received."
The blind man stretches his hand up and talks about reaching towards heaven and how the spirit of goodness, and all the goodness of those who have passed, collects there and reaches back down to touch us.
The songs, of course, are practiced, and in Latin, as is the basic structure, though many bits along the way come differently each time, which is why you could come here again someday and see it again. The end result is sad, funny, and even, moving.
For more information on Dziechi, their upcoming 24-hour winter para-theatrical workshop Maraton 2013, classes, performances, or becoming involved, contact (718) 638-6037 or visit dziechitheatre.org. For more information on the Cemetery and other events they hold in the chapel and on their grounds, click here.