The Last Leper of Charenton is testament to madness, failed faith, and human flesh. Todd van der Ark’s newest play, presented by lively fringe company the Schoolyard and directed by Gary Zinter, is set in the historic French asylum Charenton around the year 1670 as it was transitioning from a hospital run by nuns to an asylum run by monks.
There Sister Estelle (Kenna Kettrick) lovingly looks after the virginal leper Alain (Michael Harris), while one ward over, the devilish troublemaker Bruno (David Rollison) merrily spreads his syphilis with the quick-witted, melancholic Brigitte (JenRenée Paulson). The real action begins when Brother Etienne (Dustin Engstrom) returns to Charenton giddy with the revolutionary “scientific” theory that “If we were sane we might live forever.”
The show’s premise is rich with poetic oppositions—religion and science, madness and sanity, sickness and health, body and soul, male and female. Van der Ark weaves in Greek myth, biblical story, and anthropomorphic fable and writes with a rhythmic Shakespearean lilt. At times the cleverness of the dialogue is closely reminiscent of the Bard; in one scene Bruno says to Brigitte, “I am like a rat for all of the cracks I would crawl in—here’s one!” before lunging between her legs.
Van der Ark is at his best when writing for Bruno—a somewhat libertine, revolutionary role that could be a nod to the Marquis de Sade, who made Charenton famous when \imprisoned there in the early 1800s. Part Beelzebub part Bacchus, Rollison’s Bruno is charmingly lecherous. He and Paulson’s clever and conflicted Brigitte drive the play with their provocative energy.
While the saintly leper Alain lacks the complexity and intensity of his fellow inmates, Harris masters his sweet, wide-eyed innocence. Kettrick is nuanced as the wise and caring Sister Estelle, who sees the evil in the system she is forced to comply with, even as it turns on her.
The central set piece is a giant horizontal wooden cross, like four intersecting benches, that serves as both a steady reminder of religion’s dominance and an interesting scene divider. Ripped sheets bloodied with red spray paint hang from the cross like a zombie’s dust ruffle. The dim lighting and the cast’s tattered, bloodstained garments add to the apocalyptic flavor. The overall effect, however, is somewhat distracting and the feel slightly messy.
The play’s ending, too, is jumbled and abrupt. After opening the show with Bruno delivering a fable, the story ends in a rush with a convoluted Alain-Christ comparison, preceded by a speech from Bruno that revisits his fable like a misplaced bookend.
Underneath the play’s myriad themes—loss of faith, patriarchal institutionalization, the nature of madness—runs a powerful sense of sexual repression that releases slowly at first in undertone-laden verbal exchanges and finally in unbridled physical ones. In part, The Last Leper of Charenton is a play about the at-once heavenly and devilish triumph of human flesh—whatever form that flesh may take. As Brigitte says to Alain, “You make me feel well even though you are ugly.”
While the show could stand to undergo some of Brother Etienne’s remedies—the blood leeched out in some areas and thickened in others—it possesses an allure that digs well under the skin. It suggests that the body-mind relationship is not as straightforward as Etienne’s pseudoscience contends—flesh may be a cause for madness, but it is also a cure.