Kendrew Lascelles' novel "A Child's Guide to Heresy" is a sweeping tale of religion and the occult in 13th-century England, in which a young boy becomes a pawn in a bishop's devilish plans. It moves from a humble home to a cathedral's inner sanctum to a conjurer's lair.
Then, there are the forest scenes with killer wolves, one of the challenges facing The REP as it presents the world premiere stage adaptation of "Heresy."
"I think the biggest challenge is not only keeping Kendrew's voice in this but there's the production values. How do you represent wolves on the stage? Those kind of artistic challenges are things that intrigue me and our guys kind of live for that," said Ronald-Allan Lindblom, artistic director of The REP, the professional company of Point Park University.
- Where: Rauh Theatre, Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.
- When: Sept. 8 preview, Sept. 9-25. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
- Tickets: $24-$27; 412-392-8000
The company has the benefit of the playwright's presence to help with the lyrical prose, which comes from his UK roots. Mr. Lascelles is part of the company as an actor, joining his friend and director Robert Miller for the project.
Mr. Lindblom came to the story through a glowing review of the novel and Mr. Miller, a Point Park Distinguished Master Artist in Residence this year, read the book around the same time. Mr. Miller's first directing job had been a pair of Mr. Lascelles' one-act plays, in which the writer also acted, and they also worked together on the 2001 film "Focus," from a novel by Arthur Miller.
Sitting side by side recently in Mr. Lindblom's office, the friends were a study in contrasts. The wiry Mr. Miller was a bundle of energy in a loose, untucked blue shirt, tapping his foot in various rhythms and speaking quickly and clearly. Mr. Lascelles was decked out in all-black Western gear, from pointy-toed boots to the tip of his cowboy hat. His hands were folded comfortably over crossed legs; his English accent was soft, his answers measured.
"We go back a long ways, and we've always looked for stuff to do together," said Mr. Miller. "This just struck me as a great opportunity. I love working at the [Pittsburgh] Playhouse, I love working with Ron, I love working with the talent that's here in town."
Mr. Miller describes the novel as "a helluva yarn; a real page-turner." With his and Mr. Lindblom's encouragement, Mr. Lascelles was onboard quickly to adapt his book.
The book and the play include a passage of time during which a young boy, 9 to 10 years old, ages to about 18. The idea initially came to Mr. Lascelles from a passage in "The Book of Ceremonial Magic" by Arthur Edward Waite.
"In the conjuration of the angel Uriel, either a boy or girl of the age of 9 or 10 must assist the conjurer, because the angel Uriel will not appear to an adult," he explained. "And when I read this in this book, I thought, my goodness, why would someone have a child do this? It was quite wicked. And that was sort of the basis of it. ... The time period carries the story through."
The boy, Tom, is used by a bishop for his own devious purposes but befriended by an expert conjurer, who also is at the bishop's beck and call. Tom is played by one actor, Brian Knoebel.
"The truth is, especially on the stage, acting will trump almost anything," said Mr. Miller, who had been open to casting one or two actors. "Your expectations of what it should be or shouldn't be are quickly set aside if the actor is doing his job. And of course, the writing has to do it, too. At the end of the day ... it just felt right to me. We have a terrific actor. [Mr. Knoebel] is certainly of the older age, but his appearance, he kind of straddles those two ages. He kind of has to lean a little bit this way to be the 10-year-old and a little bit that way to be an 18- to 19-year-old.
"That's what I love about theater as opposed to movies. In movies, we don't want that. It better look exactly like what it is or the audience will look for things to take apart. In theater, the audience is much more co-conspirators with the actors. That's what so cool about it."
The lyrical prose of the novel has been transferred to the script with a few necessary changes, additions and subtractions, including the introduction of a narrator in the form of Tom's cheeky grandmother, played by Mary Rawson. She acts as the audience's guide to "A Child's Guide to Heresy."
The language seems right for the time and setting without being difficult to understand, although there are risks when presenting the 13th century to a 21st-century audience.
"I feel like people understand it," Mr. Miller said. "When I was trying to get 'The Crucible' produced and made into a movie, that came up not infrequently. In that case I had the advantage of being able to say that play had been produced thousands of times all around the world and nobody ever left the theater saying, 'I couldn't understand what they were saying.' The truth is, ['A Child's Guide to Heresy'] is written so well, it doesn't feel difficult in any way."
Mr. Lascelles' writing has covered mediums across the board and includes the television writing staffs of "The Smothers Brothers," "The Dean Martin Show" and "The Gold Diggers." He lives and works in Los Angeles, but he's a longtime Steelers fan, "since the days of Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris." His biography says he's "an avid western horseman" -- thus the cowboy hat -- but he's taken with the charm of Pittsburgh's architecture and narrow streets, that remind him of England.
His native U.K. gave voice to "Heresy's" characters.
"When I started the book, I wrote it in the idiom of the period," Mr. Lascelles said. "I'm fortunate because my entire family is from Yorkshire. That whole thing is virtually in my bones. And my grandmother had the broadest Yorkshire accent, so I feel like it was in my ear. I couldn't put the story down in any other language."
Mr. Lascelles is playing the Archbishop of York, who mediates a tense situation in the three-act play. The actor has been getting used to being onstage after a long interim away. He said he's been toning down his character "because he's a man who's honest and he has a certain spiritual confidence about him, which I think doesn't require the blowing of his stack or anything like that."
For Mr. Miller, the last couple of weeks before the one-night preview Sept. 8 would be the incubation period for actors and tech crew ("video is a key element") to come together, but he expects, like any new play, "It will still be baking when we get started."
"This is a big show for The REP and a big challenge," Mr. Lindblom said. "But there is such an inherent theatricality and the story is so character driven, so I said let's take a chance and put it on stage. I think it's a really good representation of what's in the novel, and the characters are fascinating. It struck me immediately as this adult fairy tale, somewhat of a morality tale, and a real challenge for The REP."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.