The goal of a 12-step program is not to get you to climb up high enough to jump and kill yourself, but playwright Young Jean Lee seems to employ that as her model for Christianity. Repeated references to going through “doors to God” make the afterlife sound so attractive that Lee presents Christianity as a death cult, even explicitly singing the hymn “Ain’t Got Time to Die.”
The short 75-minute Church in one act without intermission uses an Evangelical service of traveling ministers as a framing device around a series of disconnected monologues, including a few core pulpit monologues from preacher “Rev. Jose” (Phoenyx Williams; see interview at motifri.com/phoenyxwilliams). In a satirical parody of an Evangelical sermon, Jose begins with confessions of his past transgressions involving alcohol, drugs and sex – although he notes that nothing bad really happened to him as a result and he kind of enjoyed the experiences. He moves on to nonsensical parables about feeding sand to a goat, Jesus accepting even child molesters, a lamp seller who makes sandals that leads to an argument between a tuna fish and a bird, and mummies who eat and excrete cotton balls while drinking “human blood infected with the AIDS virus,” but these have no discernible point or purpose and just trail off. Eventually he resorts to screaming into his microphone so enthusiastically that it becomes impossible to make out his words.
The most significant monologues are the first and last. The play opens with a several-minutes-long harangue delivered to the cast in a darkened room over an amplified loudspeaker, asserting that everyone and everything are mediocrities and that anyone who aspires to more than mediocrity is guilty of hubris and sin. The play substantially closes with a bizarrely meandering parable from Rev. Jose about a “weakling” who discovered pornography, lived all his life with his mother, moved into a nursing home to take care of her and insisted on continuing to reside there after his brother moved her out, initiated a lawsuit against his brother, and spurned the misguided friendship of a woman who was self-sacrificing to the point of martyrdom – literally, because she finally finds peace when she dies amidst a vision of white light and a serpent that turns into onions that turn into bunnies.
Supporting characters present their own monologues, notably “Rev. Christine” (Christine Treglia) in a political speech about the uselessness of “masturbation rage” and “Rev. Rae” (Rae Mancini) describing her psychotic hallucinations involving a Nativity scene as a religious experience. “Rev. Gunnar” (Gunnar Manchester) does a brief sort-of biblical reading and leads a gospel song with “Rev. Jason” (Jason Quinn) and Treglia. “Rev. Sarah” (Sarah Leach) makes occasional weird interjections, including a “prayer request” to help end her addiction to self-help, soliciting prayer requests from the audience with “Rev. Milly” (Milly Massey) and “Rev. Pamela” (Pamela Lambert).
The cast is good. Williams is a gifted actor who won the 2017 Motif award as Best Supporting Male Actor in the semi-professional category. Treglia, Quinn and Manchester are gifted singers.
The fatal flaw of the play is that it consciously and deliberately has no point. One could look at that as posing questions for which the playwright has no answers, which seems to be her view of religion, but the play tries simultaneously to take these performing Evangelicals seriously while presenting them as spouting complete nonsense with genuine exuberance. That’s not irony, or at least is not intended as irony, but rather comes across as an anti-intellectual respect for their genuine exuberance coupled with lack of respect for what they actually say and believe.
The performance I attended featured a 25-minute talkback afterward, facilitated by a married couple who are both religious ministers, Rev. Charles Cavalconte and Rev. Cheryl Cavalconte, introducing themselves as “Rev. Charley” and “Rev. Cheryl.” They analogized the play to religious service: “Liturgy is drama,” said Rev. Charley. They emphasized the community aspect of religion, consistent with what I think was the intent of the play to draw the audience into that feeling of community – but, to me, having no personal experience with that sort of religious service, it was instead very alienating.
The Cavalcontes told me they are not from the Protestant Evangelical tradition, either, having a Catholic background: He was a celibate ordained priest, a Dominican friar, and she was a pastoral minister and scholar hired to teach when they met decades ago at Providence College. “When we became a couple, the church kicked us out,” she said, and she was fired two days before she taught her first class “so as not to cause scandal.” They now call themselves “post-denominational,” she said, or “inter-spiritual,” he said, and they belong to the Ecumenical Diocese of New England.
I asked at the talkback about this presentation of Christianity as a death cult that emphasized the pain of being alive, where everything is miserable and life is miserable, but gets better in the afterlife. Rev. Charley jokingly answered, “Have you ever been to a Catholic church?” Rev. Cheryl quite seriously then observed, “Do you know that Christianity is the only religion in the world whose symbol is one of death, a man hanging on a cross?” Rev. Charley added, “The Catholic version has the Corpus [body] on the cross… It is a cult of death…” Rev. Cheryl said, “Even in the ritual of baptism… they put a white cloth over you and then when you die, the pall is the same white cloth…”
One of the cast members at the talkback addressed the issue of why the play includes raving speeches about such things as mummies and cotton balls, pointing out that the central stories of the Gospel would seem to any objective observer just as nutty: virgin birth, death and resurrection, walking on water, and so forth. Indeed, it occurred to me that the cotton-ball-and-mummy business could be interpreted as a surreal version of the Eucharist.
An audience member compared the play to “self-flagellation.” The facilitators asked how many had ever been to an Evangelical service, and only one person raised a hand. That leads me to ask: Who, if anyone, is the audience for this play?
Wilbury’s new Olneyville facility after their move from the Southside Cultural Center needs a lot of work. Director Brien Lang apologized from the stage before the show for the lack of heat, explaining that a grant had been received for half of the money required to solve the problem, and he passed a virtual collection plate for the rest.
Far more damaging is the acoustical properties of the room with cinderblock walls and a reflective ceiling that cause an unacceptable echo. I was unable to make out almost any of the lyrics from one song, a hip-hop rap near the end of the show, and I caught only about half of the lyrics of the more conventional songs. Even some of the spoken parts without music, including the opening several-minutes-long monologue performed through amplified speakers in the room, were difficult to decipher with at times 20% of the words lost to me.
Church, by Young Jean Lee, directed by Brien Lang, performed by Wilbury Theatre Group, 40 Sonoma Court, PVD. Telephone: (401)400-7100 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org One act, about 75m. Thu (12/21), Fri (12/22), Sat (12/23) 7:30pm. Web: thewilburygroup.org/church.html Tickets: thewilburygroup.org/single-tickets–church.html