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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Review- Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry

The Fab Marquee review by Peyton Wise.

It was poignant watching Missa Solemnis a couple nights after the election. Tuesday night brought more than the election of a liberal African-American president; it saw the passage of California’s Proposition 8, a referendum to ban gay marriage. One of the largest efforts to pass Proposition 8 came from the Mormon Church, which raised between $10 and $20 million (news reports vary), and had every ward read a statement encouraging members to donate time and money. In this light, Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry became even more urgent as it told the true story of a gay Mormon’s suicide.

Jai Catalano as Todd and Matt Huffman as Henry

The Henry of the title is Henry Stuart Matis, who gained national headlines when he shot himself on the steps of the Mormon Ward House in Los Altos, California. It was 2000 and the Church was working to promote the passage of Proposition 8’s predecessor, Proposition 22. The playwright, Roman Feeser is a non-Mormon who became so intrigued with Henry’s story that he moved to Salt Lake and, among other research, attended the Church’s sexual conversion program. He is finishing a book, Latter Gay Saints, about homosexuality in the Church of the Latter Day Saints. With this relevancy and research level, one can’t help going in eager to see some new insight, some light shed on this complex situation.

Ultimately, those hopes are disappointed. The play provides a stark image of Henry’s predicament. We see his anguish at being unable, through prayer or force of will, to eliminate the part of himself that his faith calls an abomination. We see his parents’ inability to help him, no matter how much they want to. The family’s words paint a vivid picture of a community where to be different is to be outcast and a faith where family is a theological unit. It is a compellingly tragic picture, but the picture never moves. There is little development either of character or idea.

Matt Huffman as Henry and Bill Fairbairn as Fred

There are some dramaturgical and production solutions to this inertia. Many scenes repeat themselves. While the blocking contains some truly beautiful images, it occasionally underscores this repetition. In the play’s most tangled scene, a conversation with a Bishop who offers sympathy without solution, the two actors cycle between sitting, standing behind their chairs, and crossing downstage of their respective chairs as they review theology and whether sexual conversion programs. Neither character settles on a philosophical or physical position. There is also a distracting convention of direct address. The characters tell us what they are about to do before they do it, leaving us nothing to discover in the scene - although we are surprised by a climactic scene that belies the play’s initial suicide note.

Beyond these issues, however, it may just be that the production sets itself an impossible task. The story of Henry Stuart Matis, as told in Missa Solemnis, is a story of man versus God. The tragedy of Henry is not the community’s rejection, although some dialogue refers to homophobia in the community, nor of his family’s rejection. His tragedy is that his God condemns homosexuality without offering him any solace from his native desires.

How do you depict spiritual conflict? Any number of books from Siddhartha to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance manage it, but literature is a descriptive art form. Plays thrive on conflict in action, no matter how varied and subtle the permutations of protagonist and antagonist. There are several plays in which an individual character or the community stands in for God and their battle with the protagonist is demonstrative of the protagonist’s battle with God. But does this dilute the spiritual conflict? Does it become man versus God AND man?

Matt Huffman as Henry

In Missa Solemnis Henry has no one to fight but himself. His family is appalled, but loving. They are as unable to help him as they are to directly address his misery. He is sent to a Bishop who provides a counterpoint to our idea of Mormons, but not to Henry or his family. Henry’s eventual lover is respectful and compassionate. With no one pushing back, Henry is left to spend the entire play begging for help and receiving varying levels of incomprehension and bewilderment. That may be an exact depiction of the life of Henry Stuart Matis, but it doesn’t make for compelling theater.

The production does have some strong moments. Our first image of Henry is stunning, with a light and sound cue that seem emotive at the time, but come back as diegetic and ominous. The beautiful graveyard scene between Henry’s mother (Gail Winar) and lover (Jai Catalano) reduced several in the audience to audible sobs. Matt Huffman’s Henry has a charming side that draws in the audience and the other characters.

With the play’s descriptive images, I can only imagine the depth and detail to be found in Mr. Feeser’s upcoming Latter Gay Saints and will look forward to reading it. Unfortunately, despite obviously being crafted with research and love, the strengths of Missa Solemnis are unable to overcome its inertia.

Row Man Productions NYC & LSNelson Productions present
Roman Feeser's
Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry
Oct 30-Nov 22, 2008 (Wed-Sat @8pm; Sun Nov 2 @3pm)
The TBG Theater

Tickets are $18 and can be purchased online at or by calling 212-868-4444.

The TBG Theater | 312 West 36th Street (3rd Floor) | Manhattan.

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