It’s not every theater director who has a medieval love story as a farewell. But it’s appropriate for Alan Bryce, who retires this month after 15 years as artistic director at Centerstage Theatre in Federal Way with “Cardinal Sins” — a musical about a medieval cardinal who overcomes heartbreak to create the foundation of modern justice. Yet while the production is Bryce’s last as director, it’s the beginning of a new chapter for his writing.
“I want to write some more, and I’m not getting any younger,” says Bryce about his decision to retire from the community theater. “That’s what I love to do most of all. Fifteen years is long enough for an artistic director in any one place. It’s time for a fresh vision.”
Bryce has staged three of his plays at Centerstage: “Carl Sagan’s Contract,” and “Nightmare of a Married Man,” which were awarded Best New Play of the Year by The News Tribune, and “For All That,” which was a finalist for a Gregory Award for Most Outstanding New Play in 2015. He says he has many more ideas in his files.
Meanwhile, there’s “Cardinal Sins.” It’s the story of Stephen Langton, a 12th century English cardinal who finally forced King John to sign a declaration of rights that changed justice in the western world: the Magna Carta.
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If that sounds like boring stage entertainment, think of it this way: Two lovers are wrenched apart when a violent, sex-addicted king rapes the girl. She secretly joins a convent, telling her lover (and the world) that she’s committing suicide. Agonized, he joins the church as a priest, rising to cardinal, buddying up with the pope and eventually constraining the king with a charter that held him to the same accountability as the people he governed. In a final twist, the girl ... but we won’t spoil it here.
“It’s history through the lens of a personal story about the people behind (the Magna Carta),” says Bryce, who got the idea for the play while having a drink at the Stephen Langton pub in Surrey, England (a Scotsman, he has family there).
“It’s a grand (historical) musical like ‘Les Miserables’ or ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ” says John Henry Davis, the show’s director. “It’s actually very topical — what do we do when we have to fight for human rights? Through Alan’s vision we get the big picture.”
But as Davis and Bryce point out, it’s more than just one person’s vision. “Cardinal Sins” is a collaboration with an impressive team: Davis, who has directed opera at the Lincoln Center and theater on Broadway; Grammy-nominated composer John Forster; and lyricist Chana Wise, a finalist for the Richard Rogers Award.
Using a minimalist medieval set that doubles as cathedral and palace, “Cardinal Sins” highlights the personal in this story of kings, popes and history. Stylized medieval robes and snippets of plainchant are juxtaposed with contemporary emotional melodies and lines that show the enduring humanity of love, pain and justice.
Plus, points out Bryce, it’s a powerful way for Americans to learn about the 12th-century document that directly inspired our own constitution — so much so that in the field where the Magna Carta was sealed, south of Windsor, stands a memorial installed by the American Bar Association.
“The right to freedom of worship, the right to inherit property, to have due process of law,” says Bryce. “This will help people understand the rights and freedoms that are so important to us.”
It has also shown Centerstage what their director is capable of.
“He’s learned so much about writing,” says Caitlin Frances, who plays Langton’s girlfriend Alice, and who was in ‘Contract.’ “This show is far more dynamic and beautiful. I think it’s great he’s getting the opportunity to write, for both himself and the theatre.”
“Alan is really generous in all aspects,” says Taylor Davis, actor and assistant director. “He’s a really good director, not afraid to be edgy. And, as an actor, he’s willing to listen to any criticism. He’s been really great to work with.”
Cardinal Sins by Alan Bryce and John Forster
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, May 18-20, 25-27, June 1-3; 2 p.m. Sunday, May 21, 28, June 4.
Where: Centerstage Theater, 3200 SW Dash Point Road, Federal Way.
Tickets: $35 general; $30 senior, military; $15 ages 25 and younger.
Information: 253-661-1444, centerstagetheatre.com.