The curtain has yet to rise on the University of Minnesota’s production of “The Pope and the Witch,” but already the controversial play is receiving grave reviews.

Set to debut on the Golden Gophers’ campus March 1 and running for seven days, “The Pope and the Witch” is defined by director Robert Rosen as “a fusion of comedy and vital reality.” Having read the 17-year-old play, though, some Minnesota Catholics don’t find themselves laughing at depictions of a heroin-addicted pope or his nurse — a witch masquerading as a nun.

“Those who know and love the faith are upset and insulted,” says Julie Olson, a Catholic who attends Epiphany Parish in Coon Rapids, Minn.

That includes Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis Archbishop Harry Flynn, who has said the play is intolerant, prejudiced and hateful. Catholic League President Bill Donohue has asked that the play be canceled, as have many Catholic letter writers and bloggers. A University of Minnesota regent also expressed his displeasure during a regents meeting.

Despite the pleas, the University of Minnesota says the show must go on.

“I work for the university, so it’s not just my decision to do or not do the play,” director Rosen says. “The university is a huge institution, so there are a lot of factors involved in making those kinds of decisions. It’s an academic institution with the purpose of generating thought and discussion and ideas, which this play does, so I’m very happy with the decision to go on and produce the play.”

Written in 1989 by Italian Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo, “The Pope and the Witch,” simply notes the Nobel Prize website, explores “the legalization of drugs.”

Rosen sets the scene on the U of M’s Department of Theater Arts & Dance website: “Dario Fo creates a world turned upside down. The pope is in crisis. 100,000 poor, starving orphans from Third World countries are arriving in St. Peter’s Square in what he believes is a plot by fanatical birth control activists to embarrass him and the Church. He becomes, literally, frozen with anxiety. There begins a surreal journey, guided by a healer from Burundi, into a world of poverty, drug addicts, Mafia hit men and illicit commerce. Faced with these realities the Pope takes an unpopular stand: The man of great power takes the side of those who have no power. He puts out a revolutionary encyclical and the world explodes into anarchy.”

Catholic blogger Janice LaDuke, who has read the play, says that synopsis doesn’t do justice to how egregiously the pope is portrayed. “The pope and the clergy depicted in the play are buffoons,” says LaDuke, a librarian in St. Paul, Minn. “The pope suffers a ‘crucifixion stroke.’ He is shot up with drugs. He is depicted issuing an encyclical — it’s called that — calling for the legalization of drugs. The Holy Father is shot and killed at the end of the play. The pope in the play is obviously meant to be Pope John Paul II. The entire play makes a mockery of our faith.”

Rosen admits the play is no masterpiece. “This isn’t the most brilliant piece of literature in the world,” he says. “And it’s certainly not the best play ever written.”

So why did it make the cut? “We can do Shakespeare until we’re blue in the face, but there are other things in the world,” says Rosen, raised Jewish and whose wife is a non-practicing Catholic. “We have to remember this is a university, and university students are performing this. It’s an educational experience for them in a performance style and dealing with a play that has current social issues in it. The reason I chose the play is not with the aim of offending everybody. That’s not why I’m in theater. The play raises some issues … and I think those issues are very important to talk about and to question.” As examples, he cites drug abuse, abortion, birth control, AIDS and “the right to question authority.”

Rosen’s supporters have included University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks, several regents and the Star Tribune newspaper, which wrote a Dec. 3 editorial in support of the play that Archbishop Flynn labeled “Catholic bashing.” Supporters, in general, say that the play’s cancellation would be censorship and a violation of artistic and academic freedom, that critics should read or see the play first before drawing conclusions and that, no matter what the performance, someone always is offended.

The play’s critics counter those points and offer other objections.

“Art has become an excuse for excusing crimes and violating the rights and dignities of others,” says Ray Marshall, a Minnesota grad who lives in Minneapolis.

Common among objectors is the question of whether the university would allow a similarly themed play that mocked other religions.

“This from a university that is terrified of publishing a cartoon mildly mocking of Islam and its prophet,” says Marshall, who has read the play’s script. “But Jesus Christ and his vicar on earth are fair game.”

Dated and Unfunny

To top it all off, Marshall adds: “It isn’t funny.  It is extremely dated. It has only been performed a half dozen times or so in over 10 years, indicating that most competent directors feel the same way.”

Archbishop Flynn, in his response to the Star Tribune editorial, wrote: “We could hardly find a nightmarish parody of the papacy, a fundamental tenet of our faith that has 2,000 years of history, to be very funny.”

Though it doesn’t debut until March 1, Rosen says he already considers “The Pope and the Witch” a success. “And we haven’t even begun rehearsals yet,” he says. “The amount of talk, Internet talk and print has been amazing.”

The university plans a public roundtable discussion about the play on March 8. Others will take up the talk until the curtain is raised.

Archbishop Flynn also has written against the play in the archdiocesan newspaper, Catholic Spirit, but archdiocese spokesman Dennis McGrath says, “Beyond that, we don’t intend to take any action. We are not in the protest organizing business and even to engineer that would be counterproductive and unseemly.”

Olson, for one, says she will not stay quiet.

“I will continue to defend my Church and I will not be a bit sorry,” she says. “I will pray, I will speak out, I will write about it, and I will let the pen be mightier than the false claim of protection against censorship.”

Anthony Flott writes from

Papillion, Nebraska.