Friday, November 10, 2006

U of MN Regents Discuss Catholic-Baiting Play, "The Pope and the Witch", at Board Meeting;

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The drama scheduled to run in March about a drug-addled pope prompted some to express discomfort, but nobody proposed action.

Some of them huffed and puffed, but in the end that's about all that University of Minnesota regents thought they ought to do about a controversial forthcoming play on the Twin Cities campus.

Regent John Frobenius of St. Cloud raised the issue Friday. He called "The Pope and the Witch," a satirical play by Italian Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo, an "enormously disrespectful attack on one of our great institutions."

Some Catholics have criticized the play as hate speech. Frobenius said that he wasn't trying to stop the show but that he wanted legal advice on the ability of regents to comment on the March production by the Department of Theatre Arts.

In the end, that's exactly what a number of regents did -- repeat the earful they'd heard from their constituencies. The production features a paranoid, drug-addled pope, a witch in a nun's habit and a chaotic comedy of errors.

But as a theater major, regent Steve Hunter of Woodbury urged caution. He said there's a distinguished history of plays, such as Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" or ancient Greek plays, that may give offense. [Hunter had to go back 400 years to start his "distinguished history" to justify a play that has only been performed a half dozen times because normal people realize how offensive it its.] "I don't think it's the playwright's job to avoid offending people," Hunter said. Patricia Simmons of Rochester and David Metzen of Sunfish Lake also urged caution.

Peter Bell of Minneapolis said regents retain their free-speech rights to speak out individually or collectively on issues within their university stewardship.

Frank Berman of Edina agreed that there's a difference between an institutional response and speaking as individuals. He said that he'd like to see the play and read the script, but that he's concerned that it "puts a religion in an unfair light."

University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks said he had read most of the play [the titillating parts only?] and many reviews, and urged regents not to characterize it on the basis of what they're told. He reiterated the value that he said academic freedom represents at the university and his discussions of the issue with clergy members, including Archbishop Harry Flynn.

"We are not a university that countenances disrespect of any point of view," Bruininks said. But he added, "When people try to suppress expression, they start with the university and start with the arts."

In the immortal words of Professor B.J. Kennedy, deceased, of the University's Medical School when informed that as many of 40% of the public do not have medical insurance, "They ought to be ashamed of themselves."

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438 • sbrandt@startribune.com
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