Forgotten Wanton: Pope John XII

Absolute Johnny on the spot! Consider it a sin of omission to not attend MBS Productions‘ narrative drama John XII. A unique interweaving of historical fact and torchy romance, the former never lapses into dry and dull while the latter piques the prurient keyhole voyeur in all who attend the enactment mass. Bless me, father, for all your sins…..

Joshua Scott Hancock(l), Kevin Wickersham(r)

Joshua Scott Hancock(l), Kevin Wickersham(r)

Picture this. It’s 956 AD, in Rome, lots of jockeying for power in an unstable state. The feudal lord currently holding sway has just appointed as pope an 18-year-old nobleman, known for “excesses”, not even an ordained priest. The 18-year-old should be easy to manipulate or kill off if he proves a problem. No one considers he might be brilliant at political games, himself, and a master of vicious court intrigue. No one foresees that he could have the charisma and general appeal of a Bill Clinton and earn such adulation from the common people that he becomes a political force to reckon with. Sound like the set up for a risqué historical novel?  Fact is, it’s fact.

Mark-Brian Sonna possesses an uncanny ability to ferret out forgotten, unique, historically based situations that lend themselves well to dramatization. This original play, John XII, portrays events re-created from the brief span of time, with even briefer details, that one Octavius became Pope John XII. His edicts set precedent for the separation of church and state, the election of the Pope by a body of Cardinals and the creation of the Pope’s permanent home, The Vatican, on undesirable land at Rome’s then outskirts known as Mt. Vaticanus. Never heard of him? The Church has suppressed his place in history due to his actions, appetites and “excesses.”

The play is no intentional allegory for current US politics, but it’s hard not to spy certain similarities to recent movers and shakers in its characters. The youthful, arrogant, over sexed, rapacious John reveals hints of Tom Delay, Dick Cheney and Bill Clinton, or what they might have been like had they lived in tenth century Italy as one person. Chill your blood? Slim, slight Joshua Scott Hancock, with firm jaw and direct gaze, portrays John XII as a combination budding statesman and utter monster, amoral down to his toenails and obsessed with advancing his own agenda, from the bedroom to the halls of state. You don’t exactly empathize with Hancock’s boyish creation thanks to John’s blatant savagery, but he inspires intrigue as he reveals the inner workings of an absolutely brilliant and unbalanced mind. This is no doddering potentate in training. Want to eliminate a potential threat to the papacy? Have him castrated and let him die of septicemia. With so little historical record to go on, Hancock does an admirable job of creating a tangible, interesting reality. If a repellant one.

As Berengarius, the senior mastermind responsible for appointing John as Pope, tall, gaunt Mike Hathaway defines the play’s context. He schemes to advance his own nefarious goals in the manner of Karl Rove, quiet but lethal. He provides the only real obstacles to the young pope’s success as he towers over him like a crafty, care-worn vulture. In Act One, he appears capable of taking down the precocious upstart. In Act Two he seems to accept John’s out-maneuvering without much fuss. Or does he? A fascinating character as developed by Hathaway, he could warrant his own play separate from John XII. Much lurks beneath the surface of a placid, calm demeanor: do not turn your back. Ever.

John’s sometime lover, dim-witted but devoted, Adalbert, never learns from his stupid mistakes but engages audience pity with the sincerity of his devotion and genuine hurt after John uses and ditches him, in a clean, consistent, utterly human portrayal by Kevin Wickersham. He’s the only sympathetic character in the play and the only one who goes fully nude.

The play’s three other characters are one-dimensional shadows that add atmosphere but advance little, compared to the interactions of John XII with Berengarius and Adalbert. There is already a lot happening here. Still, expanding the role of the senior priest Liutprand, played with barely masked outrage and disdain by David Swanner, would reveal a broader picture of the culture wars and life and death political jockeying of the time, the challenges a young pope faced in making his sweeping changes that still affect governance today.  No character reminds one of GW Bush. They think and express themselves much too clearly.   Yes, John XII gets done in, but I won’t reveal how.

Tickets  available for added Saturday and Sunday matinees: August 1 and August 2 at 2:30 PM

The show will run through Sunday August 2, 2009 at the Stone Cottage Theatre, 15650 Addison Road , Addison TX 75001 .  Regular show times are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM .

Tickets:t or call 214-477-4942.

This play is rated NC-17 for adult language, and male frontal nudity. You must be 18 or older to attend.

PHOTO CREDIT: Bethany M. Hubbard

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