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COMMON HUMANITY: ‘Billy and the Pope’ debuts at TheatreNOW

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The creation of any artistic endeavor can often surprise and enlighten in the most unexpected ways. Local thespian and writer Skip Maloney can attest to such truths. Take his latest project, “Billy and the Pope,” for example, which opens at TheatreNOW on January 12. Halfway into penning the play—whose central characters are a liberal-leaning comedian/political pundit and a progressive Catholic leader—Maloney started researching towns in Italy. He wanted his main character, Pope Thomas, and nun advisor, Sister Thomas Regina, to be born in the port city of Bari. More so, he needed them to face a crisis that tested their faith. He happened upon a perfect fit through a little historical research. 

GATHER 'ROUND: (L-R) Joseph Basquill, Bryan Cournoyer, Steve Spain, David Bolinger, Laura Dixon, Marie Chonko, Craig Myers, Kent West, Zach Hanner

GATHER ‘ROUND: (L-R) Joseph Basquill, Bryan Cournoyer, Steve Spain, David Bolinger, Laura Dixon, Marie Chonko, Craig Myers, Kent West, Zach Hanner

“I discovered it was the only city in the Second World War which had experienced the consequences of chemical warfare,” Maloney tells. “Bari was an important port, in that it was a supply center for troops advancing northward through the peninsula. The port was attacked by the Germans in ‘43 and an American ship, called the ‘John Harvey,’ was sunk. That ship was carrying mustard gas, which, along with containers on land, was released into the city. Since none of the city’s officials knew of this (it was an allied secret), the doctors treated the people affected in ways that actually worsened the disaster; more people died than should have. By mutual agreement, Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Churchill destroyed the records relating to the accident.”

Such research became a central component to Maloney’s plot: The pope and nun lose their parents at a young age in the aftereffects of Bari’s chemical warfare. The anger espoused from Pope Thomas is only reconciled with Sister Thomas’ careful help. Yet, years later, it resurfaces, and Pope Thomas looks to strike back with the help of Billy Flanagan, a political comedian. He asks Flanagan to help with a visiting delegation from the US Congress, much to the dismay of Sister Thomas Regina.

“The discovery of Bari, and my subsequent discovery of its centrality to my play, was almost … unbelievable and certainly exciting,” Maloney tells. “As if, somehow, the core of this play happened to me, rather than being something I thought of beforehand.”

In going into its writing, Maloney only had focused on characters he wanted to bring to life—each based on people he admired: Pope Francis and Bill Maher. After Pope Francis’ installation, the playwright took kindly to Maher’s approval of the public pronouncements made from the Catholic church, including recent remarks declaring abortion as a sin that can be forgiven.

“I remember distinctly, physically applauding the man on his show,” Maloney says. “I wondered what would happen were the two actually to meet. I started writing.”

Though focused on people and situations borne of current societal, political and global environments, Maloney calls his inspiration more subliminal than anything. He wasn’t intentionally trying to make commentary on the world as experienced today. “The idea of the two of them in a room, shooting the breeze about their differences and their common humanity was more of an inspiration,” he says.

However, other themes arise from the script, even if not intended. Somehow the work highlights scenarios we’re all considering nowadays, like that of methodical deceit in modern politics.

“Billy talks about at length near the end of the play the role of the Catholic church in the 21st century,” Maloney tells. “What is it? Who defines it, and to what extent does the church need to adapt to shifting attitudes? To what extent should it remain firm? At one point, Billy tells the pope the abortion ‘fight’ is a battle he can’t possibly win.”

Though reared in a Catholic family, the playwright doesn’t subscribe to a religion per se. Maloney, who is doing double duty with the show as writer and director, wanted to protect the integrity of the script by making sure it steered clear of one viewpoint. He wanted it to “endow its characters with the strength and commitment to their individual belief systems.” Billy and Thomas are mere doppelgangers of their real-life counterparts.

“While I often question Maher’s vulgarity and rudeness, I am in sympathy with a good deal of his politics,” Maloney tells. “I ‘know’ the pope a great deal less, primarily because I haven’t been exposed to him in the way that weekly broadcasts have provided me access to Maher’s thinking.”

Craig Myers will play the pope, while Zach Hanner will take on Billy Flanagan. Marie Chonko will play Sister Thomas Regina. Laura Dixon, Joe Basquill, Kent West, Dmetri Serrano, Dave Bollinger, Steve Spain, and Bryan Cournoyer round out the cast. Maloney praises the cast for exceeding his expectations.

“Their work has brought out aspects of the piece I had not foreseen,” he admits. “What people are going to see is 10 percent author, 10 percent director and 80 percent pretty much everything else . . .  My confidence in the piece has been enhanced greatly by the work the actors have put into this. They have brought their own verve, enthusiasm and energy to the portrayals that has not only renewed my confidence, but made me realize the end product is a lot more about them than it is about me.”

Though it made its debut as a stage reading at CAM’s Page to Stage program last summer, “Billy and the Pope” will make its first full production premiere this Thursday night, with the help of Terry Collins and Troy Rudeseal in set design, Steve Coley behind sound and lighting, and Dana Moriarty as associate producer and stage manager.

Billy and the Pope
January 12-15, 19-22, 7 p.m., or Sun, 3 p.m.
TheatreNOW • 19 S. 10th St.
Tickets: $15

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