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Eric Uhlfelder

a well-conceived and beautifully produced
slice of history

"Spies for the Pope" by Douglas Lackey, directed by Alexander Harrington
Nov 9 thru Nov 26, 2023
Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue, New York, NY
Two hours with intermission
Reviewed by Eric Uhlfelder November 9, 2023

(L) Eric Loscheider as Giulio Cesare Vanini, (R) Jordan Stidham as Brother Marcus.

I thoroughly enjoyed Douglas Lackey’s restoration of the forgotten Italian philosopher Giulio Cesare Vanini.

In a number of ways, it reminded me of Jean Anouilh’s “Becket or The Honor of God” —both richly textured tableaux of history, philosophy, religion, wit and sex.

In both, we have a protagonist trying to navigate through conflict and politics. They both paid dearly for holding fast to their principles. Both had libertine tendencies. Both were driven by aesthetics. But where the Norman (né Saxon) Thomas Becket stood alone defending the honor of God, the Italian Giulio Vanini held fast to his belief in omniscience of nature in shaping all earthly things, including religion.

Giulio: My lords, I can prove the existence of God from this straw.
Constable: Nonsense.
Giulio: Look at this stalk of wheat, slender yet so strong, strong enough to raise the leaves to the nourishing sun. Look at seeds, so many packed in so small a place. A masterpiece of design. Think how these seeds can be ground into flour, the flour made into bread, the bread into our own flesh. As our savior said, “This is my body.” None of these things can come about by chance. This straw was designed by God.


Eric Loscheider, as Vanini, proves the existence of God through a straw he found on the floor.

The authorities knew Vanini wasn’t guilty of blasphemy, as Henry II knew Thomas Becket was incapable of malfeasance. Still, at the turn of the 17th century, some things could not stand. So the authorities relied on a backroom claim of sexual impropriety to seal his fate. Like Becket, Vanini was martyred. But where Becket was canonized, Vanini barely ranks as a historical footnote, save in obscure philosophical studies.

The play’s name owes to the belief that the Pope had sent Vanini, and his companion Brother Markus, across the continent in 1618 in attempt to stave off what was to become one of the longest and most destructive wars in Europe--the Thiry Years War. Vanini sought to reconcile the increasingly volatile divide between Catholics and Protestants.

Courtney Stennett as Princess Elizabeth.

How much of the action is true? The playwright has researched the philosopher’s life and translated some of his writings. He admits in the play notes that the entire script is of his imagination, animated by various historical characters, including, Pope Paul V, King James I, Princess Elizabeth and French philosophers Rene Descartes and Pierre Gassendi.

So whether shaped by academic precision or literary license, let that go. For like historical novels, such creation is what theater is for—to give life to the forgotten and thought to ideas . . . that resonate today.

Pat Dwyer as King James I, Eric Loscheider as Vanini.

When asked by friends how a play about the Thirty Years War might be at all relevant, Lackey reasoned: the futility of religious wars has again been brought to the fore in Gaza and Israel.

The simple staging is comprised of an elevated platform accessed by stairs on either side that allows for plenty of movement. And the scenery is dynamic. Designed by Jennifer Varbalow, it’s a constant flow of projected emblems and symbols, stained glass, imagery, and clever backlighting that transforms scenes into shadows.

Sharp dialogue and action are rapidly paced, tracking the two lead players (who are Capuchin Friars by the way) from Italy to Prague, off to England, again crossing the Channel to Calais, then to the Netherlands, down to Paris and then south to Toulouse.

Joseph J. Menino as Pope Paul V, Eric Loscheider as Giulio Cesare Vanini.

An early scene with the Pope reveals Vanini’s wit and diplomacy that’s on display throughout the play:

Pope: The telescope is not the problem. The problem is Galileo supports the Polish rebel Copernicus. Copernicus says the earth rotates once a day and revolves around the sun once a year. This is contrary to Aristotle and the scriptures. The Bible tells us that Joshua stopped the motion of the sun, not the motion of the earth. Can you persuade Galileo to recant?
Giulio: May I be permitted a suggestion?
Pope: Certainly.
Giulio: Galileo himself teaches that all motions are relative. Remind him from one perspective the earth spins and the heavens stay still, while from another perspective the heavens spin and the earth stays still. Tell him it is just a matter of convention which perspective to take.
Pope: I don’t follow you.
Giulio: Your Holiness, do hills go up or down?
Pope: (pauses) They go up if you walk towards them and down if you walk away from them.
Giulio: So hills go both up and down. If you say hills go up and Galileo says hills go down, you’re both right. It’s relative to how you walk. If he says the earth moves and you say it doesn’t, you’re both right. It’s all relative. You have no quarrel.

Michael Sirotta’s creative musical direction surrounds the play with period recordings of the likes of Handel, Byrd, Dowland, and Monteverdi.

Given the financial constraints of off-off Broadway productions, Anthony Paul-Cavaretta has done a marvelous job with period costumes.

And the half dozen actors, nearly all part of Actors’ Equity, deliver splendid performances, many playing multiple characters. Eric Loscheider embodies Vanini.

My only concern is that the end is too clearly foreshadowed and it resolves too quickly. More subtlety and transition may have enhanced matters. That aside, what we have is a rarity in contemporary theater: a clever well-conceived and beautifully produced slice of history that reminds us that despite the passage of time and enlightenment, there are some things that don’t change.

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