Many people who study 19th Century poetry eventually end up slogging their way through Robert Browning's "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's Church Rome, 15--," a complex dramatic monologue penned in 1845 but set in Rome during the Italian Renaissance. Although not exactly an easy or accessible read, the work is widely regarded as a masterful exploration of the mores of 16th Century Italy and an indictment of the Roman Catholic Church.

The narrative voice in the monologue comes in the persona of a dying bishop giving a variety of complex directions on how he wishes to be buried — and revealing his skill at political posturing and his inappropriate love of all things luxurious in the process. Since the vow of celibacy apparently didn't stand in his way of procreation, the twisted Bishop Anselm in the poem is addressing his illegitimate offspring. He's especially happy that he defeated his rival, Gandolf, in securing the services of a beautiful mistress and the mother of these youngsters gathered around the speaker's deathbed.

Before you head to Circle Theatre to see "Sanctuary," an exceptionally esoteric new play by James C. Wall, you'd better read this poem very carefully. Otherwise you won't have a clue as to what is going on in Jeanne Wall's difficult production.

Actually, even if you know your Browning (or like to think you do), it will still be a tough night. Although inspired by "The Bishop. . . ," Wall's play purports to pick up events some 500 years later. The two bishops mentioned in the monologue are the main characters, although they are both dead and able to chat like modern-day Chicagoans.

Todd C. Cornils plays Anselm and John Simmons does Gandolf — both as if they were playing guys you might meet at Wrigley Field.

Into this unholy mix comes a woman named Dorothy (Ann Followill), a contemporary figure who sports a golf cap and interacts in various ways with the two rival bishops. She's dead too.

As fare for a Browning fans — or as a clever intellectual sketch lasting 20 minutes or so — "Sanctuary" may have some merit. But as a full-blown play for a general audience, it's a pretentious, awkward and absurdly esoteric affair that lacks thematic clarity and a competent dramatic structure.

If Wall intended to draw from — or extend — Browning's multiple political issues with Catholicism, you could have fooled this viewer. If the aim was satire, laughs are in short supply. And after two hours of listening to over-the-top young actors impersonate dead bishops without a shred of believability (if such a quality is even possible, given this play), one finds oneself all but ready to swear off the theater and stick to poetry.

At least Robert A. Knuth's impressive scenic re-creation of St. Praxed's offers some distraction for the eye, if not the soul.