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A CurtainUp Review

Ascension (Christianity) —the bodily ascending of Christ from earth to heaven.
Ascension (astronomy) —the rising of a star above the horizon

Brandon Ruckdashel in Ascension
(Photo by Marc Geller)
You can't ignore the title's Christian meaning as you take your seat in the Lion Theater. A huge picture of Christ dominates the cardinal robe colored walls of Father Calvin Porter's little rectory office. But Edmund De Santis's tense little thriller also lives up to the title's astrological definition with the debut of a strikingly handsome young actor, Brandon Ruckdashel, as a pivotal character in this fast-paced Rashomon-like story. The two-act, four scene drama plays out in a very short period — from noon of one day to the morning of the next. However, the story seems to have been headed towards the explosive events on stage for close to a decade.

The opening finds Father Porter (Stephen Hope) engaged in a meeting with Agnes Sabatino (Lucy McMichael)one of his parishioners who, as a butcher and restaurant owner's wife, has volunteered to handle the food for a forthcoming festival. Though nonedescript looking, the woman has an aura of something being off — an oversized coat revealing so much bare leg that you wonder if she's wearing anything underneath. There's also something that smack amiss about her wearing sunglasses indoors and her comment about the painting on the wall ("This Christ has a nice body") and her rambling talk about religious movies she's seen (some, like Ben Hur, 327 times!).

Father Porter is obviously an old hand at dealing with eccentric parishioners. Not that he's old. He seems to be in his mid-forties at most and we quickly learn (via the talky Mrs. Sabatino) that he won't have to deal with petty activities like overseeing the details of church celebrations as he's about to become a bishop. Ah, but turns out that Mrs. Sabatino's over-extended demands on his time are more than a temporary irritation in a day otherwise filled with pleasurable anticipation of his rise up the Catholic inner sanctum's success ladder. The faint whiff of hostility and madness that swept into the rectory with her turns into full-blown menace with the woman accusing him of molesting her now suicidal son eight years earlier when he was a student and star altar boy. Father Porter, though trying to be firm, sees his hopes for a loftier position dashed. which makes the name of the actor playing Porter's real name, Hope,. a delicious bit of serendipidous irony

In order not to spoil the play's mystery angle, I won't tell you more about what follows Mrs. Sabatino's removal of her sunglasses and the accusation (actually an extortionary demand) than that she's even weirder than she at first appears. What's more, her husband, who we never meet, contributes sufficiently to the family dysfunction to prepare us for the son (Brandon Ruckdashel) when he makes his appearance (think a young Leonardo DiCaprio).

As for the priest, he too isn't quite the smooth, self-assured man of God he seems to be. If this sounds like a variation of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer prize winning Doubt (review), this is quite a different sort of brouhaha, much more in your face and complete with full frontal nudity. There's little doubt that there's a game of manipulation going on here. The question is who's manipulating who and why. Mr. DeSantis does give each character a sinister yet comic scene for being in full control and Director Marc Geller smoothly handlles these who's in charge shifts.

Young Mr. Ruckdashel has enough acting chops to make him more than just a pretty boy with a future. Mr. Hope ably conveys the ambition and ambiguity of the priest and you couldn't wish for a more off-the-wall Mrs. Sabatino than Lucy McMichael. While the house was packed, and apparently has been most nights, Ascension seems to be drawing a somewhat specialized audience (males outnumbering females by 10 to 1 on the night I attended). The producer of a regional theater I bumped into who was checking out this show is likely to be hesitant to bring this play to her fairly conventional subscribers -- though the hunky Mr. Ruckdashel would no doubt make a hit wth audiences of any age or sexual persuasion.

Playwright: Edmund De Santis
Director: Marc Geller
Cast: Stephen Hope (Father Calvin Porter), Lucy McMichael (Agnes Sabatino), Brandon Ruckdashel (Lorenzo Sabatino
Sets: Aaron Mastin
Costumes: Dennis Ballard.
Lights: Fran DenDanto III.
Running Time: 90 minutes, includes an intermission
Red Light District at Lion Theatre, 410 West 42 : (212) 279-4200
From October 6 2006 to October 21, 2006; opening October 11th -- extended to November 12th—and again to November 26th—but when the legs proved not quite sturdy enough announced November 19th closing .
Tuesday — Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday at 7:00 pm with one matinee at 2:30 on Sunday through November 12.
Tickets: The original $18 price jumped to $55 with the announcement of an extension.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on October 18th performance

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