Hell's bells

The young heroine of The Holy Inquiry, a United States premiere presented by Teatro Dallas, makes two mistakes early on in the play--she learns how to read, and she saves a Jesuit priest from drowning in the river after his canoe capsizes.

These may not sound like screw-ups, but for Blanca, the teenage daughter of a mill owner in 18th-century Brazil, they will contribute directly to a fiery climax. The Holy Inquiry was written in 1966 by Alfredo Dias Gomes; thanks to Teatro Dallas' artistic director Cora Cardona, it's finally made it to American shores.

As the program indicates, the parallels between it and Arthur Miller's The Crucible are numerous and striking. Miller wrote a parable of the House Committee on Un-American Activities' interrogations using the Salem witch trials as subject matter; Dias Gomes criticized the military government he lived under during the '60s by delving into Portugal's colonization of Brazil more than a hundred years earlier. Religious and nationalistic impulses run parallel, in the sense that both accumulate power the longer they're allowed to function outside of a larger social context. When either begins to control the decision-making in a moment of national crisis, Miller and Gomes tell us, individuals will suffer mightily.

As directed by Cora Cardona and performed by an earnest, sometimes provocative cast, The Holy Inquiry sifts through the wreckage left in the wake of a collision between sex and faith. Karla Gonzalez plays Blanca Dias with a forthright, I'm-scared-breathless-but-I'm-not-going-to-budge conviction that gradually collapses into sorrow and rage as she loses everyone around her whom she cares most about, all because of the sublimated passions she stirs in Father Bernardo (James Kille), a priest who serves in the Sacred Office--Orwellian lingo for the clerical bulldog tribunal of the Portuguese leaders.

Like most conquistadors who took their authority from carefully chosen Biblical passages, the Portuguese occupation was brutal but suffused with a weird kind of misdirected compassion. Brazilian Jews and Protestants got kicked in the teeth, but their Catholic overlords saw it as emergency dental surgery to correct growth in an unnatural direction.

And so believes the pompous, conflicted Father Bernardo, essayed here with a wry stoicism by James Kille, who gets a wonderfully defensive edge in his voice every time his own desires for Blanca muddy his grand pronouncements. Blanca is an earthy girl who says what she thinks, who demanded as a child that she be taught to read (a luxury for 18th-century South American girls, whose intellectual "purity" was even more zealously guarded than, though often grouped in with, their virginity), and who believes that God manifests himself in the love relationships between people.

Unfortunately, she is also from a family of Jewish heritage, although her father, Simon (John Flores), has cheerfully if superficially assimilated Catholicism into his own life. This is in marked contrast to his parents, who were converted by force during the Portuguese invasion. The stink of "newly converted Christians" hangs around Blanca and Simon, an odor that can be conveniently ignored or exaggerated to a poisonous cloud by the Inquisitors who stalk the land, ready to root out and punish heresy wherever it can be found.

Father Bernardo approves of Blanca's fecklessness even less than he does his own attractions toward her, so he begins to warn the girl about the temptations of the devil--an ever-present danger, he informs her, for all mankind. Blanca's hard-headed fiance Augusto (Frank Mendes) goes along to get along under this staunch Catholic regime, much like Blanca's father, but he chafes at the "clumsy revenges" committed in the name of Christian principle by the Sacred Office. Blanca accidentally draws her father and fiance into the clutches of a Sacred Office tribunal whose Inquisitor (Sean Cordobes) interprets Blanca's every word and deed as proof that she's possessed by the devil, a carnal danger to the men around her.

The Holy Inquiry echoes with the rolling, ominous toll of church bells. You can practically hear them by the play's second act, when Blanca has been imprisoned to await her trial and wonders why, "if God is light," a girl in sway to the devil should be confined alone in darkness. The bells crash and dong every time Father Bernardo speaks his tangle of self-denial and concern. The sexually tortured holy man isn't exactly a fresh conceit, but James Kille gives a psychologically acute performance that focuses on spirit instead of body. No sideways leers or heavy breathing here; Father Bernardo compensates for his libido by hurtling himself with iron conviction into his desire to "save" other individuals from what he himself suffers--namely, the condition of being human.

"There has to be a point where sex and death meet" says Bianca, and The Holy Inquiry locates that intersection on the topography of the human soul--sex. The Sacred Office becomes so determined to punish the willful Bianca for her belief that God exists inside of, not apart from, our physical desires that her decision to revive an unconscious Father Bernardo with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is turned against her. The otherwise rational Augusto is tripped up by the fact that his virgin bride-to-be has "kissed" another man. Even the Jesuit himself declares he would rather have died than help lead this girl astray. In the end, she is doomed by her independence--with a little help from the few Jewish observances her family has retained in their Catholic rituals.

The Holy Inquiry is a doozy of a meditation on how governments use both sex and religion as weapons to keep a citizenry subjugated. In this case, the melodrama that keeps Blanca fairly busting out of her bustier warrants the fevered pitch that director Cora Cardona and her actors apply to Alfredo Dias Gomes' script. My experience with Latino theatrical conventions--thanks almost exclusively to Teatro's work--reinforces the impression that Latino playwrights wear their hearts on their sleeves when addressing the big issues. I've probably seen more characters die on Teatro's stage than that of any other single area company.

This kind of florid confrontationalism is hardly exclusive to Latino writers, but Hispanic cultures in general seem to have absorbed the duality of life and death into their everyday dialogues in a way Anglos have not. More's the pity for Whitey; as The Holy Inquiry proves, when the subject matter is so catastrophically important to our individual and cultural identities, an extra layer of greasepaint on the actors makes the audience catharsis that much more satisfying.

The Holy Inquiry runs through May 17. Call (214) 741-1135.

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Jimmy Fowler