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Michael Cruz and Laura Fois (foreground)
with Ryan Hilliard in A Ritual of Faith
(Photo: © Carol Rosegg)
A young boy is taken from his Jewish family to be raised by the Catholic Church in Brad Levinson's A Ritual of Faith, which is being given its New York premiere by the Emerging Artists Theatre Company (EAT). The provocative play is set in Italy in the mid-1800s, and while Levinson has created fictional characters here, the historical record shows that hundreds of similar "kidnappings" actually occurred. Although EAT's production is uneven, the play is an intriguing examination of faith, hypocrisy, and redemption.

It centers around the Congedo family. David (Matthew Boston) is a shoemaker whose clients include both Jews and Christians. He is happily married to Leah (Laura Fois) and loves his son Aaron (Aaron Feldman) very dearly. In fact, father and son are known for leaving Shabbat services early to spend the day fishing -- a breach in religious tradition that is frowned upon by members of the Jewish community and, in particular, by David's brother-in-law Yaacov (Tibor Feldman). Further problems arise when a police official arrives to take Aaron away because of the testimony of a former servant to the Congedos: Maria (Marilyn Sanabria), a Catholic, gave the boy a secret baptism when he was very ill because she wanted him to go to Heaven if he died. Under Catholic law, this made Aaron a Christian, and so he is taken away to be raised by Pope Pius IX.

Levinson doesn't focus too much on the political situation that made such events possible. Instead, he concentrates on the human drama affecting all of those involved. Yaacov, who is president of the Jewish Community, tries to negotiate a deal with Inquisitor Santini (Ryan Hilliard). They argue church law and the relative merits of the two different rituals that define a boy's faith at the beginning of his life: baptism and circumcision. Feldman is at his best in these scenes, bringing a quiet yet intense quality to his portrayal that simultaneously communicates Yaacov's respect for the powerful Inquistor and his anger at his family's treatment.

Matthew Boston, as David, is one of the production's greatest assets. He delivers a highly charged monologue in the second act that almost makes you want to cheer, and his reactions are grounded in an emotional truth that other members of the cast seem unable to achieve. He also manages to capture the humor in the script better than any of the other actors. For example, one scene shows David trying to convince his wife that the only way to get their son back is for the family to pretend to convert to Christianity by being baptized. She balks at this drastic step, to which David responds: "If a few drops of water on your head can make you a Christian, how can you call yourself a Jew?"

It's a good thing that the performances of Boston and Fois are so strong, because several members of the supporting cast are prone to overacting and one-dimensional portrayals. Most guilty in this regard is Sanabria, whose flat line delivery makes a potentially moving scene rather tedious instead. Marc Krinsky as Maria's husband, Antonio, likewise brings no depth to his admittedly shallow role, and John Yost's pronounced fake limp sets the wrong tone for his portrayal of Augustine, the converted former Jew who instructs Aaron in Catholic doctrine. The rest of the members of the 10-person ensemble adequately bring their roles to life without putting a definitive stamp on them.

The play moves backwards and forwards in time, including a few key flashback scenes to uncover crucial information. Unfortunately, director Igor Goldin has not found a way to make these transitions flow smoothly, even though he is aided by a multi-level set designed by Scott Aronow that allows actors to enter and exit from different parts of the stage. Also, Goldin highlights the melodramatic qualities of the script rather than downplaying them. This is particularly evident in the scene where Aaron is taken away: David and Aaron grasp hands one last time before their grip is broken, and Leah runs after her son a few paces, crying out and waving her arms in the air. (I would have laughed at this, but it seemed inappropriate to do so.)

Given the premise of the play, it would be easy to view it as anti-Christian. But A Ritual of Faith is much more complex than that. By examining the nature of faith in both the Jewish and Catholic traditions, it calls into question the sacred beliefs of both religions, and its bittersweet conclusion is surprisingly even-handed.

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