How should one describe Young Jean Lee’s Church, an hour-long piece of theatre inspired by the rhythms and energy of evangelical worship? To call it a play—even with music and dance—seems not quite right, for the characters and their journey are less important than the audience and our journey as we sit in the semi-darkness, listening to sermons, sharing in confessions, swaying to gospel beats, and conversing directly with the performers.
Watching the production currently playing at Single Carrot Theatre, I experienced moments of clarity when Church seemed to be satirizing Christianity, though not of the red-state variety—not when one of the show’s four preachers is openly gay and another condemns such evils as racial discrimination, war, and anti-abortion laws. Probably this says more about me than Church; in any event, I do not think the ultimate purpose is satire, either for Lee or director Nathan Fulton—the acting is sincere, without a trace of condescension, and the script balances its more grotesque images (in one speech, a man confesses to having stabbed chickens with pipes and imbibed their blood) with lines of great insight and simplicity.
Church begins with music, which swells as the show’s primary figure, Reverend Jose (Aldo Pantoja), steps quietly out of the shadows, closes the theatre doors, and makes his way through the audience to the oversized pulpit at the center of Sarah Hickey’s otherwise empty set. As the reverend walks, he speaks his first sermon, an uncompromising accusation of every sinner in the crowd, sitting like “pigs stuffed with self-interest,” “doomed” to lives of mediocrity unless we accept God’s love, which “will melt away the selfish pig fat of our faces.” Pantoja’s delivery is measured yet firm, allowing us to laugh at the extreme language while insinuating the final joke is on us.
Three more reverends enter: Beaux (Melissa Wimbish), Aditha (Richard Goldberg), and Sarah (Sarah Gavitt), though their names hardly matter, and in truth I may have confused the women. Prayer requests are solicited. I requested that the Ravens beat the Jets (thank you, Lord!); another, more socially conscious man prayed for peace in the Middle East. The reverends conclude each prayer with a solemn clap, then make a few requests of their own, and it is here that I first caught the whiff of satire: Aditha fulminates against expressions of “masturbatory rage” (a recurring phrase), including political art; Sarah prays for the strength to quit whining after describing her stressful life as the group’s “tour manager.” (The occasion for Church is unclear: Why have four itinerant reverends come to Single Carrot Theatre to preach to an eclectic audience of theatergoers? But I digress …)
The actors are uniformly excellent, each offering a subtle variation on the same essential character: simultaneously open and inscrutable, impassioned, humorless. To nonbelievers, of course, the true believer may be unintentionally comical or terrifying, yet the most unsettling aspect of Church is how rarely Lee veers toward either extreme. The speeches grow increasingly strange, full of bizarre details and illogical tangents—Satan’s minions blend into mummies; unicorns deliver messages from hell; Jesus speaks through a moralizing tuna—but Fulton and his cast are not trying merely to scare us, and laughter seems a secondary concern. Mostly I felt like an alien amongst aliens, aware that I was being challenged to make a connection, but unable to do so.
The moments that best exemplify this tension feature music, much of it composed or remixed by sound designer Andrew “Metz” Metzroth. A simple melody sung by Wimbish, whose voice is gorgeous, builds to a full-cast dance number of startling ferocity—Lily Susskind’s choreography transforms the reverends, whose prior movements had been restrained, even elegant, into wildfires burning with Holy Spirit. (Curiously, lighting designer Riki Kim blankets the dancers in shadow, and Susskind briefly strands them along the stage-left wall.) The show concludes with a memorable original song by Metzroth, “The Lord is Great,” performed by an uncredited choir led by music director Britt Olsen-Ecker, who displays some impressive pipes herself. The energy builds to a fever pitch … and suddenly the performance is over; the singers exit, the house lights rise, and the reverends graciously shake our hands and thank us for coming.