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Compass Rose is a perfect fit for Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral'

Compass Rose is a perfect fit for Eliot's 'Murder in the Cathedral'
The chorus - from left, top row, Nancy Linden, Ali Evarts, Liza Skinner and bottom row, Eliza Geib, McKenzie Vergauwen and Chelsea Tuffy, in "Murder at the Cathedral," at Compass Rose. (Courtesy photo)

Compass Rose Theater displays its innovative play selection by presenting T.S. Eliot's probing drama, "Murder in the Cathedral" as its third offering of the season.

The play, written in 1935, follows Compass Rose's acclaimed November-December production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats," which was based on another Eliot work — the playful "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats."

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Coming back to back, these two productions reflect fascinating incongruity in the Annapolis-based company's creative programming.

In selecting the plays for Compass Rose's fourth season, founding artistic director Lucinda Merry-Browne shows she's unafraid of the challenges of staging and directing Eliot's classic drama in verse about the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

Merry-Browne has selected a cast of 13 — including three members of Actors' Equity, two Compass Rose faculty members and young Compass Rose students — to portray priests, tempters, knights and, as the director describes it, "a chorus of women whose lines are filled with fantastic images of the natural world."

Heading the cast in the role of Thomas Becket is Charles Matheny, who has performed locally and in New York.

The priests are portrayed by Thomas Peter, who has performed in London, New York and Baltimore; and Thomas Beheler, a theater arts graduate from the University of Maryland.

J. Hayes Biche, Ryan Dalusung, Ray Schultz and Christopher Williams appear as the knights and tempters. Biche is a teaching assistant at Compass Rose, and Dalusung is a Virginia-based actor. Schultz received his master's degree and his doctorate from Wayne State University in Detroit, and Williams holds a master's degree from Catholic University.

The chorus also consists of actors who are well trained in theater arts: Ali Evarts, a recent University of North Carolina theater graduate who studied in South Africa; Baltimore-based actor Nancy Linden; Chelsea Tuffy, who holds a bachelor's degree in theater and drama from Keene State College in New Hampshire; and Liza Skinner, a Compass Rose teaching artist with a bachelor's degree from New York University and a master's degree from West Virginia University.

McKenzie Vergauwen and Eliza Gelb, members of Compass Rose's Young Actors' Studio, also appear in the chorus.

The play centers on Beckett's struggles with four tempters — the first offering fleshly delights, the second and third worldly success, and the fourth tempting with sins of pride. The latter proves to be powerful and subtle as Becket strives to find the will of God.

In her director's notes, Merry-Browne writes, "This production gains its power from the choral voices echoing throughout the theater, the drama of the assassination, and the love of the bishop for his people.

"Telling a story dated 1170 poses a number of current questions about right and wrong with sometimes tragic and bloody results of impulsive actions," she writes.

Yet there's a theme that resonates today, she notes: "How timely is the idea of dying for a good cause?"

Considered Eliot's major theatrical work, "Murder in the Cathedral" may help audiences understand themselves through the dramatic power of Eliot's poetry. Eliot biographer Peter Ackroyd once noted that the play offered its author "a double advantage, allowing him to practice poetry but also a convenient home for his religious sensibility."

"Murder in the Cathedral" focuses on elements of Becket's martyrdom, rather than the quarrel between the archbishop and King Henry II. Twenty-five years after Eliot's verse drama, Jean Anouilh's play "Becket" arrived on Broadway starring Laurence Olivier as Becket and Anthony Quinn as Henry. The play won four Tony Awards and later became a film starring Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton.

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Intent on offering audiences "works of art that do more than entertain but also pose questions of love, power and death," Merry-Browne is presenting a play which has never been staged in Annapolis, and is more often performed in churches than in theaters.

The production opened Friday and runs through March 8 in Compass Rose Theatre's soaring, cathedral-like space — ideal for this riveting drama where all action takes place inside Canterbury Cathedral. The intimate 70-seat theater is a wonderful venue in which to experience Eliot's humble, mild Becket.

Performances are 7 p.m. Thursdays and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through March 8. Tickets are $35, $20 for students with ID, and $30 for seniors and military members. Order at compassrosetheater.org or call 401-980-6662.

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