Theater » Theater Feature

Sacred and Profane

Thais, a new play about a whore who became a saint, debuts at First Congo.



"Well, of course, I am the most beautiful woman in the world," says actress Tracie Hansom, fanning herself ironically. Hansom plays the title role in Thais, a new play debuting this weekend in the basement of First Congregational Church. She leans back suggestively in her metal folding chair in the middle of a performance space so pink it's positively pornographic.

And then she gets all mushy. "This was a gift," she says. "It was a wonderful gift. And I'm just happy to share this gift with all these other people."

The gift of which Hansom speaks is not her beauty but an original role written specifically for her by actor, director, and playwright Jonathan Haugen of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"Tracie and I worked together from 1992 through 1994," Haugen says. "I ran a little theater company in Washington State. And when I thought about writing Thais I knew I was doing it for her."

Thais tells the story of a 4th-century saint, who, more likely than not, never existed. According to legend, Thais was the whore queen of the Middle East: rich, powerful, and lovely beyond compare, who after a rather brutal conversion process became the living embodiment of God's love. Haugen's take on the story, however, focuses on the conflicting interests, sacred and profane, which inhabit both Thais and the priest (played by Tony Isbell) who converts her.

The roots of Haugen's Thais go back to a cheesy 19th-century novel by Anatole France. Though it reads like a Harlequin Romance, it is mostly a satire on Christianity. The book was very successful, so France wrote another version of the story with expanded chapters. Pretty soon there were stage versions and eventually an opera.

"I loved the story," Haugen says. "And I could see this thread echoing all the way into our culture, all the way up to Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke -- this use of the fallen woman. I loved the fact that this was a story about these two very different people meeting and having a relationship that is a philosophical relationship. It's a relationship about ideas, not on 'Oh my God, you've got a great ass.' Although it kind of ends up like that."

"I wrote Thais as basically a love note [to Tracie]," Haugen says. "It was handwritten in this big notebook, and I gave it to her as a gift."

What was it exactly about Hansom that made her the ideal model for Haugen's whore-saint? "Well," he begins hesitantly, "It's not that she [Thais] is a whore Well, sure, all right, part of the appeal is that she's a whore. But she's also smart. She's a great businesswoman. She's filthy rich. She owns property. She's a very formidable figure, and she's beautiful. And [finding the person who can play all of that] is tough. I thought Tracie could do it. And I knew she was intelligent enough to do it. That's one of the things that is so attractive about the character."

Haugen and Hansom have maintained a dialogue about the play for years, going over it and over it in what they have described as a series of drunken phone conversations. But the time to produce the play never seemed right. In fact, Haugen admits he wasn't sure that -- given the distance and the difficulty of the classically informed script -- if it could ever be done. Enter the DamnFool.

"We've not made any long-term plans," says actor/director Brian Mott, who has long been planning to start an independent theater company called DamnFool Productions along with actor/director Isbell and a few other like-minded individuals. "We're sort of waiting to see how [Thais] goes, and then we'll start to think about whether or not we want to [keep doing it.]"

Thais is DamnFool's ambitious trial run. It was a logical choice for Mott and Isbell, who knew of the script because they were friends with Hansom and who managed to find a window of time between conflicting engagements that jived with the playwright's contractual obligations.

"We've only had three weeks to put this thing together -- set, costumes, everything," says Haugen, expressing a bit of disbelief at how far the company has come so quickly. "We started working the minute I got off the plane. But this is an amazing group of people."

Thais runs Thursday-Saturday, January 22nd-24th and January 29th-31st in the basement of First Congregational Church at 1000 S. Cooper. Tickets are sold at the door on a pay-what-you-can basis.

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