The Holy Sinner
NASDA Theatre, E Block, CPIT, Christchurch
07/10/2010 - 09/10/2010
10/03/2006 - 13/03/2006
New Zealand International Arts Festival
In 1990, a play hailed as “the most extraordinary piece of theatre in recent memory” made its debut in Auckland to sell-out crowds and rave reviews. Sixteen years later, this landmark contemporary New Zealand work returns, revamped and more incredible than ever. Based on Thomas Mann’s novel of the same name, The Holy Sinner is an epic tale of nobility falling from grace, filled with lies, deception, guilt, discovery and exultant transformation. The involvement of New Zealand’s top performers and designers, including Academy Award winner Grant Major (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, guarantees that the experience will be awe-inspiring and visually stunning. Inside Out founders and directors Mike Mizrahi and Marie Adams return to the Festival, and to their theatre roots, with over a decade of experience creating large-scale spectaculars. They have built an international reputation producing events such as the massive worldwide 150 Year Celebration for Louis Vuitton, and The New Zealand Millennium Celebrations, with a cast of more than 1000. So prepare yourself for visions of heaven and hell, angels, cardinals, foul-mouthed fisher folk, nuns, lepers, opulent kings and queens, sinful love-making and huge battle scenes; The Holy Sinner is truly an epic medieval ride. May contain nudity, some content may offend.
directed by Marie Adams & Mike Mizrahi, Inside Out Productions [NZ]
set designer Grant Major
art direction Tracey Collins
costume Bob Buck
lighting Bryan Caldwell
Cliff Curtis as Wiligis/Gregorius
Mia Blake as Sibylla
Madeleine Sami as The Maid
Cameron Rhodes as Flan
Ian Hughes as Abbot
(Alison Bruce as Fisherwoman
Kirk Torrance as Goatbeard
Jeff Szusterman , David van Horn, Mark Clare
Review by Matthew Wagner 06th Apr 2006
In its best moments, The Holy Sinner showed us fleeting and random flashes of beautiful set design; in its worst moments – which unfortunately comprised the bulk of the performance – The Holy Sinner was simply and inescapably bad theatre.
The tale for this overly long and self-indulgent production is taken loosely from Thomas Mann’s novel, and tells the story of fated incest. The infant son of a set of fraternal twins is outcast, eventually returns to the duchy of his widowed mother, vanquishes her foe, and is rewarded with her hand in marriage. Upon discovery of the truth, he banishes himself to ‘the most desolate place on Earth’ (which, in this production, one gets to by rowing halfway across the stage in a boat on casters and in very shallow water), but he is, in the climatic scene of the play, rescued from there by two cardinals who have dreamt of this man as the next pope.
But this story barely emerges at all in the current production. The narrative – and anything we might want to attach to it or find it – gets lost among the inconsistent acting, the abrasive (and not at all complimentary) soundtrack, the frequent and unnecessary set changes, and most of all, the utterly destructive love affair that the show’s creators, Marie Adams and Mike Mizrahi, have with theatrical technology. They gave us a mobile, multi-level scaffold set and giant red curtains; we had fog, and video projections, and flames and sparks that shot up from beneath the apron; there was a massive rock to which the sinner banished himself, and ‘rain’ and snow that descended there upon him in his darkest hours. Adams and Mizrahi are technological wizards. But, in this instance, they were not story tellers, and they were not theatre directors.
Nor do I think it apt to praise even their technological abilities. Neither the impressive stage design nor the special effects actually served the rest of the production in any substantial way. On the contrary, the effort (especially in terms of set changes) that went into managing these effects inhibited the flow of the story and prohibited the creation of any emotion or dramaturgical impact other than frustration. The scaffolding, though on casters, was awkward and laborious to move; fires were lit and then unceremoniously put out; a set piece with the sinner and his mother/aunt/wife enclosed within was raised above the stage, twirled, and then set down; the sprinkler spouted out streams of water that looked far less like rain and far more like something that would extinguish all those fires that were randomly appearing. Over and over, an effect would appear, do little or nothing, and then get removed; such was the structure and substance of the performance.
As I left The Holy Sinner, I felt almost as if Adams and Mizrahi had (probably unwittingly) mocked their audience, and had certainly, thoughtlessly, squandered that which had been given them by both their audiences and their backers. For both viewers and supporters (and here I mean CNZ, corporate sponsorship, the Festival itself), time, energy, and money are scarce. And if the critique above seems overly harsh or even angry, it is because the production left me with a sense of anger, of frustration, and of wondering where we might have more productively focused our limited resources.
Copyright © belongs to the reviewer
Overblown, flashy and incomprehensible
Review by Lynn Freeman 30th Mar 2006
You couldn’t get a bigger contrast than the heart-felt simplicity and quality storytelling of Page 8 and the overblown, flashy and incomprehensible production of The Holy Sinner. It looks a million dollars (and rumour has it cost even more to produce) and America’s Cup party planner Mike Mizrahi and Marie Adams have incorporated pretty much every stage SFX in the book. Visually it’s astounding and it is refreshing to see a New Zealand production produced on a grand scale.
The opportunity, however, is badly squandered in terms of telling a New Zealand story (a brief mention of Ten Guitars and inclusion of a Maori Warrior don’t qualify) or even a good story. Think Vincent Ward and Peter Greenaway collaborating on a medieval stage play – beautiful yet unfathomable. It’s bloated (half an hour longer than the programmed time) with long waffly on-stage scenes of things like extended fish spitting (for heaven’s sake!) to allow, presumably, set up for the substantial scene changes. If the audience is in any doubt that this tale of double incest is not a serious look at religion and redemption but a lame satire go no further than the final moment – a cheesy tableau followed by a marching girls’ routine.
The actors worked hard but even they didn’t really seem to understand what was going on. Grant Major’s set design looked spectacular, as you’d expect from a multi-Oscar winner and Tracey Collins’ were stunning – but how many times did we have to watch actors run across the stage so we could admire their flowing cloaks? A pretentious waste of three hours.
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Staging submerges actors
Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 30th Mar 2006
From its humble beginnings 16 years ago in Auckland, Inside Out Productions The Holy Sinner now soars out over the Westpac St James Theatre stage like some great Wagnerian opera, an epic production of an epic tale.
Based on a novel by Thomas Mann of the same name, the story of Wiligis/Gregorius (Cliff Curtis) and Sibylla (Mia Blake) and their journey of forbidden love, deception, lies and then ultimately redemption and transformation, is visually one of the most sunning productions so far this Festival.
Directors Marie Adams and Mike Mizahi and their design team of Grant Major and Bob Buck have created an amazing set that moves in and out and around from scene to scene effortlessly, the array of earthy hues of greys and browns capturing beautifully the medieval tones of Mann’s story all wonderfully enhanced by Keith Ballantyne’s incredibly evocative soundscape.
However such is the enormity of this amazing staging that the poor actors become submerged and dwarfed by all the visual effects, especially in the first half, where the slow and even pace of the production makes it difficulty for the audience to engage in the underlying tension and emotions that are running through the story.
In the second half the action picks up and as a consequence the pace does as well, creating moments of real drama and emotional intensity, unfortunately destroyed by the Disney style cartoon ending which for no apparent reasons has a group of cheesy marching girls parading around the stage.
Up to this point the actors all give very creditable performances, Madeleine Sami particularly outstanding as the Narrator/Maid /Mother.
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Egotism or what?
Review by John Smythe 26th Mar 2006
What the …? Why would you do that? Mesmerise your audience for two-plus hours with a medieval epic sweep through classic mythology, liberally sprinkled with earthy and insightful humour, then piss it all up against the wall with a fatuous finale? I have to cancel that last image in order to re-engage with what went before, but I will return to it to ask again: why?
Warning: This is a review of record. If you’re going but haven’t yet seen it, this may reveal more than you wish to know beforehand.
The source material is one of German writer Thomas Mann’s last works: The Holy Sinner (1951). Mann uses a medieval legend about "the exceeding mercy of God and the birth of the blessed Pope Gregory" (seen as the true founder of the Early Medieval papacy) to bring his ironic sensibility and elegant mockery to the notion of original sin and the transcendence of evil. While at one level it can be seen as a tale of "transfiguration by divine mercy," according to Lewis Vogler in the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, it can also be seen as, "a brilliantly erudite spoofing of medieval superstition and the traditions of chivalry – for which the author obviously has so great an affection." In the New York Times Book Review, Stephen Spender declared it, "A small masterpiece" and "a triumph of art indistinguishable from moral sensibility which makes the miraculous, most incredible part of the story … the most convincing."
The fabled apple – fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil – makes a number of appearances during this Inside Out Productions/New Zealand International Arts Festival remounting of the show that reignited Auckland theatre in 1990 (then wowed New Zealand Festival of the Arts audiences in 1994 and won a Chapman Tripp Theatre Award for most original production of the year). Greek mythology is also invoked as the children of so-called nobility succumb to brother-sister incest (Zeus and Hera), son-mother incest (Oedipus) and atonement for such sins by being chained to an ocean-thrashed rock (Prometheus).
So why have directors Marie Adams and Mike Mizrahi decided to revisit this material now, in 2006? Is it because the rhetoric of Good versus Evil has re-entered the world stage with a vengeance? These are the sorts of questions that drift into my consciousness as my other senses engage with their epic staging, powerfully performed by fifteen actors in a stark medieval wilderness created by designers Grant Major (set), Tracey Collins (art direction), Bob Buck (costume) and Bryan Caldwell (lighting), engulfed in the stunning musical compositions of Keith Ballantyne with Link Audio.
The action is largely non-verbal yet rich and clear in content. As a cold wind blows, church bells ring and monks and nuns climb or descend a vast wooden grid to cloister themselves in cubicles. The grid gives way to open space through which people run. At a distant high table, in front of an enormous distressed wall back-cloth, the people gather to raise their goblets to Duke Grimald (Bruce Hopkins) and his Duchesss (Angela Shirley), and a Maid (Madeline Sami) tells us, in Everywoman Cockney tones, that they have no children. More than once she will end her conjectures, "But what would I know? It’s not my place to say."
Recurring images of copulation, prayer and awaiting the miracle of conception – dwarfed by massive red curtains; subsumed by a pulsating heartbeat – culminate in the spectacular birth of Glad-wrapped twins, Sibylla (Mia Blake) and Wiligis (Cliff Curtis). Their mother dies and ascends into heaven, their father takes to drink and they take to each other with child-like glee until their affectionate play-fighting is nipped – too late? – in the all-too-burgeoning bud by the maids. Sibylla’s affection for their Dad alienates Wiligis and a parade of unsuitable suitors for her hand makes the Duke so apoplectic, he dies. The siblings’ mutual grief proves an aphrodisiac and they commit their terrible sin. Now they are the Lord and Lady and, amid the redness and heartbeat, she finds herself pregnant. "Why didn’t you tell me?" she wants to know. "I didn’t know!" her brother/lover/Lord replies. Apparently their teachers weren’t into apples.
Wiligis makes Sibylla promise to put herself in God’s hands while he banishes himself to do God’s work. When the baby is born she sets it adrift in a basket, with an inscribed tablet, on the turbulent tide – powerfully created with video projection onto black scrim. We take a break awash with the scale of the tale so far (although there are grumbles about the poor sound balance for some of the spoken word and I have been dismayed to be distracted, during a low-lit scene of high drama, by a distant backstage door opening to a bright-lit corridor).
When figures descend slowly into what looks like the Devil’s workshop, I’m thinking we’re relocating to Hades but it turns out to be fishermen going to work (theatrical indulgence? I can’t help wondering). An Abbot (Ian Hughes) comes a-begging for alms in the shape of a nice big fish and the baby-in-the-basket is duly found. He is passed to a foul-mouthed nursing Fisherwoman (Alison Bruce). Her uncouth natural son, Flan (Cameron Rhodes), and Gregorius (Curtis) metamorphose into men. "The spitting image of his father," Sami’s incidental Everywoman quips, in an Irish accent now. Much roughhousing between the brothers (including Jeff Szusterman & David van Horn), at home and at the fish works, ensues.
When the Abbot picks him out for higher education it alienates Gregorius even more from his bros, makes him aware he’s an outcast and foundling, and leads him to ask the big questions: "Why me? For what purpose have you saved me, Lord?" Under what he believes is God’s guidance he finds his way back home, where Goatbeard (Kirk Torrance), a 17 years-rejected suitor-turned-bad, is in the process of demolishing Sibylla’s armies. Gregorius vanquished Goatbeard. Now victory is the aphrodisiac – Oedipus rides again – and now I’m wondering how come she didn’t recognise him, if he’s the image of his father/her brother? But the people toast the Lord and Lady, the apple-polishing servants gossip … and through his tireless questing (also like Oedipus) the awful truth is revealed. Now it’s Gregorius who claims he didn’t know, tells his wife/mother to open her heart and practise humility (she tends to lepers) and sets forth to find the most desolate place on earth to live out the rest of his days in atonement.
Everywoman is Scottish now, in the guise of a woman whose Fisherman husband (Mark Clare) berates the crawling Gregorius with a vitriolic Rogernomics rave about his expecting a handout when everyone else has to work for a living. He’s only too happy to chain the penitent Gregorius to a rock in the ocean where the ruthless elements may or may not cleanse his soul. Meanwhile in Rome, two Cardinals (Szusterman & Rhodes) share their revelations via a visionary lamb, conclude the next Pope will be Gregory, and set out to find him. The final image has a halo-topped Gregorius (bloody fast sanctification, I’m thinking) at the peak of his rock surrounded by the whole cast, all bathed in heavenly light: their curtain-call tableau. An opportunity to contemplate the question of redemption in the light of religious belief and practice … Is this a manifestation or corruption of Goodness? Will Everywoman deliver a punch-line to her "what would I know – it’s not my place to say" set up? Cue a rousing Gregorian chant, perhaps?
No way. It’s fatuous finale time. Suddenly The Stars and Stripes Forever is blaring from the sound system and a squad of Marching Girls invades the stage. What the …? Why …? My initial reaction is to laugh, clap along and assume I’ll get it in due course. But the more I think about it, the more cranky I get. When this happened 12 years ago the audience was so grateful that establishment theatre had been so fantastically challenged, they were not about to let this aberration spoil it for them. Now, for me at least, it has to mean something. It has to add a bonus to the investment of time, attention, intellect and emotion the audience has invested, on trust.
I try my best to draw a connection from Greek mythology through medieval Christianity and the fundamentalist religious practices that dominate current political landscape, to this presumably ironic display of pro-USA patriotic bombast … But the leap is too great. It has no meaning other than to tell those who engaged with the show’s deeper levels that we’re stupid to have got sucked in, that The Holy Sinner‘s only purpose is to show the world how clever its makers are. The Greeks called it hubris. Freud called it egotism. On opening night I heard one audience member call it a wank.
I realise that in the years since Sinner opened, with that same wacky ending, Inside Out Productions has made it big in the Corporate and sporting arenas with world-class shows (see http://www.iop.co.nz/ ). They have constantly been affirmed for delivering shock-and-awe visual spectacle, humour and surprise for their own sakes. But this is theatre. A different deal. I want stamp my foot like an officious Shortland Street matron and snap, "You’re not at Ericsson Stadium now, directors Adams and Mizrahi."
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Tyce W July 25th, 2006I think you might have misread the purpose of this production. I wish I could explain the finale in terms of a radical reevaluation of the human-historical dasein, or something similarly solemn. Unfortunately, I believe the answer is simple: we were punked. You, it appears, are still being punked. While the production values and staging were truly superb, the finale was clearly meant to demonstrate what should have been obvious within ten minutes. The play, for all its beauty, was ridiculous. Read your own review: there was a live birth which involved the use of glad wrap. There was a Scottish fisherwoman who uttered more profanities than David Mamet. An unncessary tableau with a floating halo, very purposeful glitches (such as the stage door opening, which also occured the evening I saw the play), and a sign proclaiming "Meanwhile, back in Rome..." all made an appearance. And let us not forget the moment when the ensemble turns to the audience and begins chanting in unison "Outcasting, Foundling, Outcast, Foundling..." The play was an exercise in the (beautifully) absurd. It ridiculed our pretensions by appealing to them. I will admit to spending most of the play trying to decipher the symbology of the production. It was only in the final moments that I realized that I had been taken for an amazing ride. What I initially thought was Mary Zimmerman on steroids, turned out to be Mary Zimmerman done by Monty Python. And like all great parodies, the directors of this production created a product that was every bit as beautiful as the subject they mocked. I've never been more pleased to feel like a fool.
Michael April 1st, 2006After we discussed the use of microphones in your History Boys blog, I found it interesting that this play had gone for amplification. Was this always their intention or a reaction to the complaints on sound at this venue? You're right that this play was not especially dialogue-driven, but several times during the play, dialogue was lost. Sometimes the mics were brushed against, sometimes they cut in and out (for example, when Wiligus was dressing up in crusader gear) and at other times they produced random clicks like someone backstage tripped over the auxiliary cables. Unlike the History Boys (back row of the gods), here we were in row C of the stalls. Perhaps this was too close for good sound balance or perhaps it was worse further back - I don't know. The pyrotechnics during the incest scenes were quite fierce. Very spectacular from row C. And very hot! Given that the St James had squeezed in two extra rows between row A and the stage, I did wonder if anyone in that temporary front row had any eyebrows left! I have to agree with your comments on the ending. The sudden and unlikely ascension to pope, I attributed to the historical source and therefore accepted for the sake of the play. The marching troupe however was surreal and jarred against the rest of the show. Both my wife and I experienced the same "what the" reaction. I did not know about the same ploy being used 12 years ago. Is this written into the script by the playwright or an invention of the original production that has been retained? One last thing, was it my imagination or did Cliff Curtis appear quite unhappy during the curtain call at the end?
John Smythe April 1st, 2006Thanks Michael - I look forward to other comments on the matters you raise. With no writer(s) credited, I take Marie Adams and Mike Mizrahi to be the 'auteur' creator/directors. It's down to them that the marching girls were used both times. Regarding the curtain call, I thought Cliff was remaining in his Papal role initially, offering sactimonious blessings, until he de-roled, relaxed and looked quite happy. Any other thoughts on that?
quidam April 1st, 2006I saw Holy Sinner Saturday night and I too noticed that at the end a couple of the actors didn't look very happy. I would agree that perhaps they were still in character, but the other way I read their expressions was that I think they may have been thinking "what the" just as much as the rest of the audience! That may be wrong, but think it was a real pity that the show ended with the marching. Ending aside, it was fantastic to see a New Zealand show with so many amazing visual effects that were on the whole exectuted pretty much flawlessly.
Michael April 1st, 2006Thinking more about my comment that Cliff looked unhappy during the curtain call, it occurs to me that it was probably genuinely uncomfortable on that rock. With the "rain" and the "snow" perhaps he couldn't wait to get off-stage to a hot shower!
Kerry April 1st, 2006Absolutely agree. It was one huge piss take, and they were oh so clever. Taking us all for a ride. And we paid, oh the shame. Dreadful Kerry
Kate JS April 1st, 2006Dear John So pleased you're sending me links to these daily reviews. I try not to read them until I've seen the production, and I couldn't wait to get to "Holy Sinners" after watching the last night... last night. In the theatre I was surrounded by "isn't it awful" reactions, but me, I was entranced by the boldness of the visual expression. My response to the marching girls was absolute delight. I imagined the creators sitting around stoned one night and saying "Hey what else can we put in that's totally OTT?" Had no idea about the historical significance, maybe should have read your review first! Finally though, my thoughts were: great visuals, would be better in service of a great script. Thanks for your constant insights. Hope you're enjoying it as much as we are. Kate JS
Review by Harry Ricketts 26th Mar 2006
Marie Adams and Mike Mizrahi, who are Inside Out Productions, put on their first adaptation of Thomas Mann’s The Holy Sinner in an Auckland warehouse in 1990. This was Holy Sinner mark 3: dynamic, passionate and compelling, but also quirky and at times outright comic.
Adams’s and Mizrahi’s specialty is visual, physical theatre with the minimum of dialogue. Here the story and its medieval world were almost entirely evoked by movement, gesture, sound, props. Music pounded robotically or soared in broken hallelujahs. Characters dashed about or caroused raucously. Huge red curtains, a throbbing heartbeat, suggested the womb. Scaffolding swung forward to present tiers of monks in cells. Twins were born, sliding down a chute, writhing and clutching, viscous in plastic wrap. A tale of sin, penance and redemption, and then more sin, penance and redemption, rapidly unfolded (though not nearly as rapidly as the timing in the programme claimed).
The sin is incest: Les enfants terribles crossed with Oedipus. Twins Wiligis and Sibylla have a son Gregorius. Wiligis dies at the Crusades; Gregorius is set adrift by Sibylla. Later Gregorius returns and, unknowingly, sleeps with his mother Sibylla. Sibylla devotes herself to helping lepers; Gregorius lives alone on a desolate rock for 17 years seeking redemption till he is unexpectedly made Pope. With all its pace and breathtaking theatrics, the production understood the ironic tone of Mann’s novel about incest and divine election.
Mann, as a knowledgeable friend explained to me, was not a believer, but was fascinated by unconventional sexuality and chosen outsiders (the novel’s title in German literally means "The Chosen One"). Cliff Curtis (doubling as Wiligis/Gregorius) and Mia Blake (Sibylla) gave the incestuous couples plenty of sexual intensity (to the accompaniment of long-tailed devils, hellish jets of fire and belches of steam).
Curtis, on a brief break from Hollywood, also provided considerable pathos in the penitential scenes and showed a nice comic touch throughout. Because for all the gravity of its theme, The Holy Sinner (like Mann’s original) was always playfully serious. Undercutting the Sturm und Drang were Madeleine Sami’s Maid, an earthy Cockney chorus, and Cameron Rhodes’s Flan, Gregorius’s hilariously resentful foster brother, among the fisherfolk who bring him up.
Finally, as a dazzling halo descended above Gregorius’s head, his papacy was marvellously, miraculously, ludicrously endorsed by the appearance of a squad of marching girls. As they wheeled and saluted, a strange elation took hold of the absorbed audience.
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Alex MacDowall July 25th, 2006In short, as this production has already received a fairly strong airing, I'd direct you to actually read the substance of the review. I think you'll find that you are faulting the review for a critical project that it doesn't quite seem to be undertaking. The fact that all of the elements just didn't cohere, the internal inconsistencies, the boredom it induced are actually quite a different objection from what you seem to be maintaining. I really doubt that you could make a good case for this as some kind of latter day dadaist escapade, and on the other hand, I find myself in total agreement with the review: I wasn't diverted by any moments of beauty or brilliance. I simply saw poorly thought out work, which is quite a different thing. This wasn't just a production that was disliked by those who might have applied the rules of more mainstream dramaturgical readings. It was loathed by plenty of advocates of imagistic performance, a lot of people who see and make experimental work, and many people who *could* actually see what they were trying to do. Just because some people set out to do a certain thing doesn't necessarily mean that it actually achieved that ambition, and moreover, I think you'll find that this powers the objections given how resource intensive the production was. (I think the Monty Python analogue is somewhat problematic, BTW, because notwithstanding the subversiveness of many of their forms, their core world-view is, in many ways, surprisingly conservative.)
Tyce W July 25th, 2006I think the mockery (or perhaps satire) was entirely intentional. I think you might have misread the purpose of this production. The play was an exercise in the (beautifully) absurd. It ridiculed our pretensions by appealing to them. I will admit to spending most of the play trying to decipher the symbology of the production. It was only in the final moments that I realized that I had been taken for an amazing ride. While the production values and staging were truly superb, the finale was clearly meant to demonstrate what should have been obvious within ten minutes. The play was beautifully ridiculous. There was a live birth which involved the use of glad wrap. There was a Scottish fisherwoman who uttered more profanities than David Mamet. An unncessary tableau with a floating halo, very purposeful glitches (such as the stage door opening, which also occured the evening I saw the play), and a sign proclaiming "Meanwhile, back in Rome..." all made an appearance. And let us not forget the moment when the ensemble turns to the audience and begins chanting in unison "Outcasting, Foundling, Outcast, Foundling..." Had it not been for the marching band, I might have agreed with you that it was simply a god-awful production. But that last moment, to me, suggests that the entire thing was purposeful and brilliant. Cruel, perhaps, knowing that the majority of the audience might not be in on the joke. But brilliant nonetheless. What I initially thought was Mary Zimmerman on steroids, turned out to be Mary Zimmerman done by Monty Python. And like all great parodies, the directors of this production created a product that was every bit as beautiful as the subject they mocked. I've never been more pleased to feel like a fool.