image: A Holy Show: Hijacking A Plane For Fun and Prophets

A photo of the blessed Virgin as portrayed in A Holy Show. 

Distance in time sometimes allows us to see humor in situations which seemed all too serious at the time they were taking place. Irish playwright-director-actor Janet Moran can clearly attest to that fact, as her enjoyable comedy, A Holy Show, has managed to dredge  a good deal of humor from a situation that is more often the stuff of thrillers than comedies: a plane hijacking.

The real-life hijacking that Moran chose to use as a basis for her play already had a number of comic elements built in. In May 1981, an Aer Lingus flight on the short hop from Dublin to London was commandeered by a single hijacker with an unusual agenda.

The hijacker was Australian Laurence Downey. Downey was actually a former Trappist monk who had been tossed out of his monastery for what he describes in the play as “a misunderstanding”. Indeed; the abbot at the monastery apparently misunderstood the spiritual message Downey was trying to convey when he punched the abbot in the face.

On the fateful day in May, Downey was a passenger on the Aer Lingus flight. Shortly before landing, Downey slipped into the toilet, then re-emerged covered with some fluid. Making his way to the front of the plane, he burst into the cockpit (they had easy access back then), held a container (or pair of containers) over his head, announced it was a highly flammable substance and threatened to ignite the fluid unless his demands were met. That would have ignited a tidy conflagration that could have engulfed most of the aircraft, incinerating most of the passengers and crew as it flared.

Downey’s initial demand was that the plane fly directly to Teheran. When the pilot insisted they simply didn’t have enough fuel to make it to Teheran, Downey then demanded the next item on his list: that Pope John Paul II finally reveal the Third Secret of Fatima*. (see sidebar)

Had there been a tragic end to this story, those details would have been frightful stumbles along the way to the sad finale. As it happened, the story had a happy end, so playwright Moran could use those elements to build a comic play upon. And Moran does a fine job at crafting a neat comedy in A Holy Show.

Moran employs various comic devices to earn laughs and appreciative nods here. Several minutes in, the playwright serves up a segment where the two flight attendants are giving passengers safety instructions. The instructions are the standard fare, but those rote guidelines are interspersed with what’s actually going on in the minds of the stewardess and steward as they deliver their spiel. Delivered in slightly muted tones, these bits include irritation with certain passengers, sexual attraction to other passengers, and commentary on the ill-conceived fashion choices of at least one traveler. What makes this segment work so well is that these expressions of the attendant’s inner thoughts segue cleverly into the stock lines of safety instructions.

From there, Moran spins out different humorous bits, such as conversations between passengers; the inner thoughts of passengers delivered as mini-monologues; and the reactions of different characters (especially those flight attendants) as they realize that these could be their last moments alive. (Yes, even those reactions are turned into comedy.)

Moran, apparently a Catholic of the lapsed variety, also packs the short script with a number of playful digs at Catholic lore, in particular the apparition of the Blessed Mother at Fatima in 1917. Much of what occurs in these scenes follows standard Catholic accounts of the apparitions, though delivered in such a way as to draw humor out of them.

However, none of the humor is mean-spirited, which relieves it of any charges of intense anti-Catholicism. Some sensitive Catholics may still find these scenes offensive, though this practicing Catholic found the bits mildly amusing and quite acceptable. It might be noted, however, that much of the religious humor in A Holy Show is rather sophomoric.

There are also a few key moments when the comedy brakes, and a note of poignancy squeezes in. The best example of this is when hijacker Downey delivers his vision of what will happen all across the world when that Third Secret is a secret no more. He sees people coming together, being kind to each other, caring and then … as he says, none of us will be lonely anymore. That last bit offers a peek into the soul of the hijacker, revealing his deepest motive and the sad solitude of the man. Had playwright Moran given us a few more such moments, A Holy Show would have achieved greater weight and been something more than just a light entertainment.

As it’s set on a crowded airplane, A Holy Show has a large cast of characters. Among the many, there’s a pair of newlyweds on the first leg of a honeymoon trip to southern Spain; a mother and her young daughter; and the steward and stewardess giving instructions and then trying to maintain calm as they themselves start coming apart at the seams. We also meet a Belfast transplant, a young woman planning on becoming a nun, and an atheist who suddenly embraces prayer when he thinks the plane may be about to crash.

Remarkably, all of these characters are rendered by just two actors, taking on roughly ten characters each. The Inis Nua pair (Rachel Broadeur and Liam Mulshine) give spirited performances that merit high praise as they play off splendidly against each other to bring out the comedy to its fullest. Their energy, expressive gestures, and comic timing make this Inis Nua production the success it is.

It helps a lot that both performers are skilled mimics. Rachel Broadeur delivers spot-on Irish accents, but her brief version of a posh English accent is somewhat off the mark. Liam Mulshine also offers a splendid suite of Irish brogues, though his Australian accent comes off as more mid-Atlantic than Aussie.

Tom Reing’s direction undoubtedly played a significant role in drawing out these strong performances. Reing, assisted by movement director Dan Higbee, was able to use a minimalist set to create a convincing sense of place and make every shift in scene credible.

The pacing of the show was also pinpoint. Some of the bits were delivered rapid-fire, while at other moments, the pace slowed down to achieve just the right effect. There was never a moment where the action seemed to lag and rarely a moment when it seemed rushed.

One slight problem here, one probably baked into the script itself: from time to time, it was difficult to keep track of which characters from the throng of twenty had just come into focus. This was a minor problem, however, as the humor came through no matter if we knew or didn’t know who was supposedly delivering it.   

This is the American premiere of A Holy Show. As noted above, it is a light piece, running just over an hour, and offers up few deeper insights into the central figures or the situation the real-life participants were thrown into. It’s there to have fun and invite audiences to share in on the fun. As Tom Reing says in his Director’s Notes, “We all need a good laugh right now, and I felt this play could deliver.” His instinct about the work was quite right; Inis Nua’s A Holy Show provides a steady stream of good laughs. And it comes at a very good time.

A Holy Show runs at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake (302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia) Wed. through Sun. until October 24. Saturday’s performance is at 8:00 p.m. Sunday’s at 2:00 p.m. All other performances at 7:00 p.m. Audience members are required to show proof of vaccination at the door.

*The Third Secret of Fatima

Roman Catholic lore tells us that when Mary, mother of Jesus, appeared to three shepherd children at Fatima, Portugal in 1917, she entrusted three secrets to the children. The first two secrets were revealed in 1941, while the third was supposed to be held back until 1960. However, when 1960 came around, the Vatican released a public statement asserting that it was "most probable the Secret would remain, for ever, under absolute seal." The Vatican’s refusal to honor the 1960 date generated a wave of wild rumours and supposition. Many believed the Third Secret was apocalyptic, perhaps providing the date for the end of the world, and that the Vatican had withheld it for fear of the worldwide panic it would unleash. The Third Secret was finally released in June, 2000, though many sceptics still believe that only a part of that secret was revealed then.

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