Chalk Rep Serves Up a Tasty “Diet of Worms”

You’ve heard of the Diet of Worms? Maybe not.

It was a special congress — diet, in medieval-speak — of the Holy Roman Empire, called in 1521 to condemn Martin Luther for his public criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church.

It’s also a new play by Tom Jacobson, being staged by Chalk Rep in the dramatic depths of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral.

But the play isn’t about the medieval meeting. It’s about the impact of the public upheaval — which gave birth to Protestantism — on a cloistered community of German nuns.

Lorene Chesley, Keiana Richard, Inger Tudor (photo: Halei Parker)

Lorene Chesley, Keiana Richard, Inger Tudor (photo: Halei Parker)

The play’s setting is majestic, even imposing. But its tone is light.
It opens with Sister Katherina trying to confess, distracted by her fear that Luther will close all the monasteries and convents.  She hits on an idea — giving Bible readings to combat heresy.  Her aunt the Abbess, a watchful but lenient “mother hen,” is easily persuaded.

Soon, Katherina and her cohort bypass readings for staged plays. These they create from the Apocrypha — versions of Scripture the Church has specifically excluded. Their choices veer toward high drama and feminism (e.g., Judith seducing and slaying the Assyrian commander Holofernes); and just when they fear the Abbess will shut them down, she demands a part in the next play.

As the troupe tours neighboring nunneries, freedom overwhelms them.  Most of the actors abscond (hidden in herring barrels, during a performance for their clerical overseer); they abandon the order, despite sharp warnings about the wretched plight of women in the world.

Diet of Worms is grounded in historical fact. Katherina von Bora and several other nuns did flee the Abbey of Marienthron (where her aunt was abbess) in 1523, hiding  in a fishmonger’s wagon; Katherina did marry Martin Luther two years later, and bore him six children.

But Jacobson transforms history into play. He imagines the nuns’ foray into theatrics, and the heady effect of enacting stories that encourage women’s wit and power rather than obedient piety. (This arc leads, beyond the play, to the Katherina who amazed people by swiftly reorganizing the huge, crumbling estate where Luther lived.)

Director Jennifer Chang follows Jacobson’s lead. Amid the vast spaces, marble floors and gold-leaf mosaics of the cathedral, her light, swift stagecraft keeps the story in ceaseless motion. She whisks us from scene to scene — and through the tissue between fact and fancy — easily and gracefully.  (Chang also wisely works around the high-domed central platform, which is the building’s focal point but swallows sound like a whale devouring krill.)

Her ensemble delivers the story and its fancies well.  The principals use vocal force and articulation, letting nothing get lost in the huge church’s cavernous depths.  And all move in the complex space as freely as if they do indeed live here.

Inger Tudor’s dignified, centered Abbess holds the community and its story together, even when she cedes her power to her charges. Keiana Richard fills Katherina with a native intelligence that bids us trust her impulses (as her aunt does); and Lorene Chesley lets Lanita, the sister with a shady past, open gradually like a defended flower.

Elizabeth Ho, as the shy and scholarly Fronika, avoids stereotype by creating a constant, delicate dance, whether she is making a textual choice or plunging in the world.  And Rebecca Kaasa makes the new arrival, Eva, an approachable mystery whose self becomes more important to us than her hidden backstory.

Arturo Betanzos and Sasha Monge show what minimalism and theatricality can accomplish in their scenic and prop design. And Rebecca Bonebrake uses little lighting beyond what’s already in the cathedral, yet illuminates every moment.

As a bit of a history nerd, I had to swallow hard when I felt us lift off on a comic ride through the Reformation — a particularly turbulent and nasty era, when Europeans slaughtered one another to prove their faith.  But once aloft, this play moves with assurance, taking us where it means to go, entertaining and informing us along the way.

Writing this review, I also notice (for the first time) how very close Jacobson’s story outline falls to that of The Sound of Music.  And I appreciate how very far from that saccharine, sentimental world his writing — and this company’s work — take us.

Chalk Rep, already established as one of LA’s prime makers of site-specific (and often immersive) theatre, now begins a formal residency in St. John’s Cathedral.  Diet of Worms gets that promising  relationship off to a lively start.
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Diet of Worms, by Tom Jacobson, directed by Jennifer Chang.
Presented by Chalk Repertory Theatre, at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral, 415 W. Adams Blvd.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:00, through June 27th.

Tickets: <www.chalkrep.com>