Story: A bureaucrat in Franco’s Spain, circa 1962, interrogates an Israeli professor at the Spanish National Archives in Madrid. The professor has landed in hot water by purloining a file dating back to the infamous Spanish Inquisition from the late 15th century.
The file in question concerns a priest named Andres Gonzalez, a converso (a Jew who converted to Catholicism, often by coercion) who subsequently fell in love with a Jewish woman. As the bureaucrat questions the scholar about his interest in this file, the life and horrible persecution of Fr. Gonzalez is played out in flashback as told by Gonzalez to his mentor, Fr. Juan de Salamanca. Slowly the bureaucrat realizes what is transpiring in his office nearly 500 years later.
Highlights: The tragic tale of Andres Gonzalez was adapted to the stage by Oren Neeman, and translated into English by Ami Dayan and Mark Williams, from the novel Confession, which was written by Yonatan Ben-Nachum and was honored with the 2001 Prime Minister Award for Hebrew Literature.
Conviction played for five seasons and more than 500 performances in the repertoire of Israel’s National Theatre, Habima. A touring production of the one-man, one-act drama has been performed in various venues throughout the United States since 2008. That includes one that is being performed at the New Jewish Theatre by Dayan, who lived in St. Louis for a few years four decades ago when his father was the Israeli Shaliach (emissary) at the Jewish Community Center.
Other Info: That’s all well and good, but Conviction is rife with problems. As evidenced by the myriad names in its source derivation, several people have taken part in bringing the tragedy and injustice of the centuries of persecution orchestrated by the Inquisition to the page and the stage.
Unfortunately, Conviction may be better suited dramatically as a novel. While Dayan unquestionably demonstrates superb acting ability, the presentation at the New Jewish Theatre, as restaged by director Joe Gfaller, is stolid and static much of the time. It sorely lacks the dynamism necessary in a one-person story. Sincerity and earnestness notwithstanding, it’s a considerable chore to stay awake through the 75 minutes of Dayan’s portrayal.
Interestingly, the affecting sound design isn’t listed in the program, which is unfortunate since the soft and melancholy score is one of this production’s primary strengths.
It’s aesthetically satisfying to watch Dayan etch several characters, primarily Gonzalez and the 20th century bureaucrat, and lighting designer Nathan Schroeder supports the actor by making meticulous use of a stained-glass window and, later, actually testimony in Fr. Gonzalez’ kangaroo court trial illuminated on the stage floor. Costume designer Michele Friedman Siler does equal justice to 15th century clerical garb as well as the dapper suit adorning the bureaucrat.
Ironically, as terrible and unjust as Gonzalez’ real-life treatment was, Dayan’s portrayal is more clinical than emotional, and leaves little room for engagement for at least some audience members. Conviction is a noble experiment that too often isn’t compelling on stage.
Group: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: April 10, 11, 13, 14
Tickets: $35-$39; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb