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Pentecost is a play that does the thinking for you. It's fast-paced and cerebral, but playwright David Edgar doesn't leave much to chance in what he wants us to learn. Which is: Europeans and Americans haven't bothered to understand the first thing about the ethnic divisions in Eastern Europe. We merrily snatch up their land for future investment and sell their residents our Led Zeppelin 'n' Arnold Schwarzenegger capitalist fantasy, but do nothing for the people who need and deserve political asylum. The play's heavy pedantry is a wall between the audience and the refugee characters Edgar wants us to understand and pity. A soft-toned fresco discovered on the wall of an abandoned church evokes more sympathy and interest than the band of multiethnic refugees driven from their homes by persecution. The fate of the refugees and the painting become inexorably linked, but the art, fleshed out by a less didactic narrative, is more appealing.

In an unnamed Eastern European country, Gabriella Pecs, an art curator for a national museum, has gone hunting for a medieval painting described in the country's "Great National Patriotic Poem." She finds the fresco underneath layers of socialist folk art, concentration-camp graffiti, Catholic graffiti, and whitewash. The painting distinctly resembles Giotto's Lamentation but could predate it by 100 years, effectively relocating the origins of the Renaissance out of Italy and into a Slavic town called Clop.

Through the fresco, Gabriella (Mary Shultz) tells the history of her city, which over the years has been invaded by Mongols, Hungarians, Turks, Germans, and Soviets. English art historian Oliver Davenport (J. Michael Flynn) is a collaborator in the restoration, and an audience to her story. Davenport's snobbishness, and the intrusion of American preservationist Leo Katz (Frank Corrado), illustrates the patronizing attitude of Western countries: The unsophisticated province can't be trusted to take care of its own masterpieces; indeed, after numerous occupations and botched governments, it can't be trusted with its own history. The first act flows along with the attempts to rescue and validate the fresco; Shultz, Flynn, and Corrado are engaging and have fantastic chemistry, and even when the tone is aggressively political, the superb design, lighting, and performances counterbalance the message.

But this equilibrium is short-lived. The act ends with a hostile takeover of the church by a band of multinational refugees seeking asylum. Each petitions a different Western nation for shelter, complicating the negotiations. Playwright Edgar isn't content with this United Colors of Benetton setting. He slathers on two more heavy-handed concepts. One is Pentecost. After Christ's Ascension into heaven the Holy Spirit visited the Apostles as tongues of fire, enabling them to speak in the languages of other men. In Edgar's play, everyone speaks some pidgin of the language of capitalism. Pentecost is the New Testament answer to the play's other recurring metaphor, the Old Testament fable of the Tower of Babel. Babel was the great cooperative effort of mankind, a towering city with a single language. But God blasted this apart because the little bugs were getting too big for their monotheistic britches.

The two Bible stories have a natural tension -- the splintering and unification of humanity through language -- that's appropriate to the play. And when Edgar's characters aren't preaching, they create some captivating moments. As the siege drags on, the escapees begin to swap stories from their homelands. As Tunu, the Sri Lankan exile, Anjali Bhimani is the one player who doesn't speak English; she dances the story of Ram's rescue of his bride Sita. The play starts to resemble The Canterbury Tales more than the Bible as everyone tells a story and in the process reveals how he or she came to be in the church. Pentecost is a great play in the moments when the characters are people, not props for a political statement. As valid as the play's message is, it would be more edifying if Edgar didn't bully us with it.

-- Julie Chase

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