Walking into the Kenai Performers space for the first time, you might think you’ve gotten the address wrong.
It doesn’t look like a theater inside, but a church, with lofty gothic arches that frame a candlelit altar. There’s even a choir.
This is “Murder in the Cathedral,” T.S. Elliot’s dramatization of the assassination of Thomas Becket. The Kenai Performers are tackling the ambitious piece this weekend and next, at their first in-person show since August.
Mark Burton plays Thomas Becket, an Archbishop of Canterbury during England’s 12th century.
As the story goes, Becket was a friend of King Henry II until he started pushing back on the state’s claimed supremacy over the church. That got him in trouble with his royal ally and, well — you know how it ends.
It helps to know the story in advance since Elliot’s script is dense. But even without a degree in medieval history or verse drama, viewers can plug in to the emotional tumult of the characters through the actors’ facial expressions. In the small theater space, every mouth movement or eyebrow raise is visible.
It's especially striking in a time when masks and social distancing often obfuscate those intimate physical details of strangers. The show’s actors, unlike the audience, aren’t wearing masks. Director Paul Morin said they’re all getting rapid COVID-19 tests each show day.
The play was set to go up in December but got pushed when that felt unsafe. Morin said it’s been a long time coming.
“When I read this about a year ago, I was just enthralled. I was like, ‘We have to do this,’" he said. "But I also realize that there’s no one who’s really going to be game to do this unless I take it to the board and say, ‘We need to do this.’”
It required a lot of learning. And coordination. There are many moments in the show that involve a chorus of Canterbury women who chant together, or yell out one after another.
Morin said that took practice.
“There were some rehearsals where we literally just spent the entire two or three hours just going over those sections, again and again and again," he said. "And to their credit, they got it much quicker than I thought they would. Not because — it’s such bizarre material. I mean, it’s good. It’s wonderful. But at the same time, it’s so weird. And that’s part of what makes this really fun, too. It’s really liturgic, you have that sport of responsorial, almost like a prayer, almost like when you’re responding to scripture at church sometimes.”
Rob Lewis plays a tempter and knight Hugh de Morville.
“I’m not really a religious person so I don’t know a lot about this stuff, and so it’s been interesting to see how important this is to some people in this group — because it’s a lot of the history that they've grown up learning — and how fun it is for other people to learn this history as well," he said.
Hedy-Jo Huss, who was at Thursday’s dress rehearsal, was familiar with some of the material beforehand.
“I knew some but it's been years," she said. "I recognized a lot of the character names from even way back to high school, in college and so on. But that’s been a long time ago for me.”
She said she really enjoyed the show and found it cerebral and intellectual. It’s also dark at times. Religion, martyrdom and suffering loom large in the play.
But there are also moments of levity, particularly among the knights and temptors. Lewis says those were his favorite scenes because they were allowed to experiment with the dialogue.
“And while Paul had great ideas about the direction and the stage and how he wanted the overall feel to go, it was nice to have the freedom we had, free reign, both as a knight and a temptor, on how we wanted to guide the scenes," he said.
The Latin songs of the 10-person choir, directed by Rosemary Bird, bookend the show. Listening, you might for a moment forget where you are.
“Murder in the Cathedral” goes up this weekend and next weekend at the Kenai Perfomrers space on K-Beach Road. Tickets for the in-person shows are sold out but you can still buy tickets to the livestream performances, at kenaiperformers.org.