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Young Jean Lee’s ambitious play Church leads nowhere

Photo: Chris Hartlove, License: N/A

Chris Hartlove

Richard Goldberg (foreground), Sarah Gavitt, Aldo Pantoja, Melissa Wimbish (from left to right).


By Young Jean Lee

At Single Carrot Theatre through Oct. 30

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Experimental theater has a lot in common with the evangelical church. Both try to explain the world through surrealist narratives—virgin births, the second coming of Godot, angels in America. Both favor outsized performance styles—loud voices, broad gestures, rhythmic deliveries. And both rely on the loyalty of true believers, who are willing to go with anything, no matter how unconventional or irrational, in the belief it will bring epiphany.

The line between theater and religion is rubbed out beyond recognition in Single Carrot Theatre’s fascinating but flawed production of Young Jean Lee’s Church. Single Carrot’s long, narrow performance space is painted black—walls, floor, and ceiling, all black. A single spotlight shines on a scarred wooden pulpit; up to this lectern steps the Rev. Jose (Aldo Pantoja), a trim young man in a tailored gray suit, white shirt, and paisley tie. On the screen behind and above his head, a round, stained-glass window appears and begins to swell and shrink with the pulses of bright light shining through it.

Everything about the situation—the hipster theater, the hipster audience—creates the expectation for a merciless satire of Christian fundamentalism. Lee seems to be relying on that expectation; she even baits the audience by having Jose declare, “I don’t know that God exists any more than I know that God doesn’t exist.” But Jose never loses his cool, never loses the thread of his argument, and goes on to claim that in this unknowable universe, faith is all we have.

And don’t think you’re better than those fundamentalists, Lee implies, for Jose adds, “You are incredibly similar to all the people sitting around you right now. The vast majority of them are doomed to a life of disappointing mediocrity just like yours.” What follows is a fairly straightforward church service, complete with songs, grinning handshakes, and a call for prayer requests from the congregation. Were the prayers for the Ravens and peace in the Middle East that a Sunday afternoon audience requested any different from the prayers one might hear in the conservative reaches of Carroll County?

Lee, an OBIE Award-winning playwright with her own theater company in New York, describes herself as the nonbelieving daughter of Korean-American evangelicals, so she understands the theater, rhythms, and themes of church from firsthand experience. She never exaggerates so broadly that it becomes a parody, but if you listen closely she is constantly slipping in lines you would never hear in an actual evangelical church.

When the tall, bearded Rev. Aditha (Richard Goldberg) testifies, “I recently broke up with my boyfriend,” he’s clearly expecting sympathy for his broken heart, not censure for his behavior. A few minutes later, he adds, “We believe that making art and pontificating about political evil is a form of masturbatory rage,” as if warning the congregation against the temptations of experimental theater. When the Rev. Beaux (Melissa Wimbish) shares her vision with us, it’s more like a real dream (she boards a city bus that morphs into an SUV, whose driver morphs into a super-villain) than a religious revelation. When the entire cast begins singing, “The Lord is great/ the Lord is good/ We got drunk in the Valley of Death,” you might feel utterly confused.

Neither Lee nor Single Carrot director Nathan Fulton ever deliver the parodic wink to reassure us that they’re just kidding. Fulton’s terrific cast never gives in to the temptation to exaggerate; the actors always stay in character as if they really are trying to heal our souls. Pantoja and Wimbish are especially good at staring us down with moist, earnest eyes as they seductively purr their Christian blandishments.

What neither the playwright nor the Single Carrot production provide, however, is any sense of narrative development or payoff. This frustratingly static show begins as a close-but-not-quite-exact version of an evangelical service and ends in exactly the same place. Church shows us various facets of such a service but never allows the characters or themes to change and grow. Lee and Fulton’s cast establish a compelling atmosphere that draws us in, but once they do, they don’t know what to do with us but give us more of the same. It’s not enough.

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