When a playwright scripts an interactive revival meeting as a play, you assume you’re in for a comic parody. If you’re not of the world of evangelical Christianity, there’s nothing more strange — and ripe for mockery. But there’s also something enviable about what evangelism offers the lost — a community, a peace of mind, a pathway.
Korean-American Young Jean Lee wrote “Church” as an earnest and open-minded attempt to reconcile her life-long struggle with Christianity. We in the audience are presumed to be part of an extreme but deeply sincere congregation. This brief theatrical experiment ultimately asks what is it that drives us to faith? Is it a heart overflowing with spirit — or one running on empty fumes?
The play is being staged by TheatreWorks — and what better place for a rumination of this sort than Colorado Springs, home of Focus on the Family and mega-churches like Ted Haggard’s former New Life Church? It will test the faithful and unfaithful alike.
We are greeted by four smiling, sincere-to-the-point-of zombified, TV-pretty reverends who welcome you — I mean really welcome you — to this nonspecific house of the Lord. In his introductory remarks, the genial Rev. José makes plain that he gets us, deep down. We’re all missing something in our lives. We all harbor fear that we’re not good enough. Our priorities are misaligned. Life is fragile. True, brother, true. We’re superficial hypocrites, he goes on. Without God, our world is cruel and senseless, and we are completely at its mercy.
Now, hold on, partner.
By the time this smiling assassin is done pointing out our manifest defects, he’s performed an evangelical evisceration. Not five minutes in, and one woman in Thursday’s audience had already had enough. “Gee, thanks!” she huffed in disgust, to the nervous laughter of a crowd that really had no clue what in the H-E-double hockey sticks was going on here.
Seventy minutes later, they still didn’t know for sure. Because Lee’s strange play — really a collection of confessional monologues disguised as a revival — is a spiritual hit- and-run. Make that a T-bone, because it often comes at you sideways. One second you have a fix on its point of view, and 30 seconds later, you’re unsure again.
What we know is that the Rev. José is played by an actor named Kevin Landis, joined by three earnest female reverends — gorgeous women all done up in Wisteria Lane dresses who are at once sirens and, we learn soon enough, personal train wrecks. The kind who are most often reborn.
There are times when you’re sure all this has to be a joke. When Rev. José lets loose a string
of malapropped, twisted parables in which he invokes mummies, pornography, body odor, a magical unicorn and a pile of onions that turn into rabbits, it’s absurdly funny. But it’s these nonsensical things he says, juxtaposed against the absolute conviction in his delivery, that constitute, I think, the author’s testament to faith itself — the adherence, with utter conviction, to improvable truths.
When the women testify, they reveal everyday lives of reformed sinners whose days are filled with ongoing confrontations with malicious spirits and evil demons. But then they break into song — and isn’t music always the great pacifier? They grab hands, they dance freely like Manson’s children, and for a moment we feel a sense of peace because the harmonies sound so pretty — even if the words they sing are “shaking in your bones is required.” It’s not a spiritual; it’s a seductive pop song by a defunct New York indie band called On!air!library!
This “revival” doesn’t fully hold together as a theatrical conceit, but the playwright succeeds in forcing the audience out of its traditionally passive role and makes it feel evangelism’s power to both draw you in and condemn you simultaneously. That’s accomplished through brave and fully committed performances that director Christy Montour Larson elicits from Landis, Mare Trevathan, Shannan Steele and Lija Fisher.
As intentionally troubling as this whole experiment is, it’s how it ends that’s most unsettling. Without giving it away, we are subjected to a legitimately soul-lifting, hand-clapping demonstration of faith that could be seen as either a palate-cleanser or borderline exploitation. That we’re not sure makes plain that it’s the theater company’s responsibility to make its ultimate intent more obvious.
Wherever it was that TheatreWorks wanted to take us, we never get quite all the way there.
John Moore: 303-954-1056 or firstname.lastname@example.org