Royal Shakespeare Company playwright David Edgar's 1994 drama is long enough, at around three hours, and has enough people and palaver in it for two plays. Which it practically is. The first play, embedded in the larger play, features 17 characters and presents prolix polemics about conflicting views on art conservation: restore or preserve? The second play, which kicks in with a bang near the end of the first act, adds on another 17 characters and transforms Act Two into a passionate tract about the miserable plight of international refugees. This makes for a highly serious and ambitious mishmash of themes and ideas, pitched at an almost Shavian level of world-historical intellectual ponderousness, though lacking Shaw's essential lightheartedness.
The lavish Old Globe production, directed by Mark Lamos, is flabbergasting, with Michael Yeargan's astonishing scenic design representing a strife-scarred Balkan church interior whose back wall undergoes instant transformations to show the uncovering, restoration, and final fate of an ancient fresco thought to be the precursor to a work by Giotto. York Kennedy's brooding lighting design collaborates in these powerful illusions, along with Paul Peterson's sound and Merrily Murray-Walsh's great range of costumes.
This art-history/science-fiction device plays off the predicament of a motley band of armed refugees who seize the church and take the conservators hostage, giving rise to questions about the value of art in relation to human misery, the linkage of great art to one's cultural identity, and why it should matter a jot to the deracinated. These militant refugees from a representative selection of distressed lands speak a Babel of tongues (hence the title) and pad out the second act by narrating their characteristic tales of disaster, often in those languages. One sequence, brilliantly mimed by Jolly Abraham as a Sri Lankan, rabbits on, however, so obscurely in Singhalese that it begins to suggest the "hopni, skipni" episode from Larry Shue's The Foreigner. I hope I'm not giving away too much by telling that matters conclude in manner similar to the climax of the novel Bel Canto and special effects seen in the latest James Bond film.
Renowned Bulgarian actress Mariana Dimitrova is most expressive as Gabriella, the art curator who discovers the fresco, although her authentic accent is often difficult to decode. Michael Santo strongly projects the perplexed presence of the English art historian who shares in the find. Elijah Alexander is impressive as a snide rival art historian. Lauren Campedelli seethes as Yasmin, passionate Palestinian leader of the refugees. Guy Ale is dynamic in two roles: a Slavic right-winger and a vigorous Gypsy. And Anna Katarina gives striking characterizations to both a magistrate and a Russian refugee. For the rest, fine work by Rod Brogan, Marika Daciuk, Yevgeniy Dekhyar, Christopher Gottschalk, Deborah Annette Heinig, Kahan James, Antonie Knoppers, Misha Kuznetsov, Charles Daniel Sandoval, Calli Sarkesh, Mustafa Shakir, Charles Stransky, Nanka Sturgis, and Karen Zippler.