Saturday, February 4, 2017

When Push Comes To Shove

People often overreact to news that challenges their fundamental beliefs or sets off their bullshit alarms. Whether a casual remark unintentionally wounds a narcissist's ego or a candid revelation sparks a friend's jealousy, emotions heat up, passion squelches reason, and trouble soon erupts.

Ever since last November's election, tempers have been flaring throughout these United States. I'm lucky enough to be able to seek solace, insight, and empathy in the theatre (the house of worship where I frequently commune with the gods of comedy and tragedy). Apparently, I'm not alone.


With some people, it can be difficult to determine whether their sudden concern for one's well being has genuinely been triggered by a desire to protect their friend from a mysterious stranger. Others may find themselves compelled to draw a line in the sand over whether or not they are willing to accept new and seemingly radical ideas or insist on clinging to long-accepted dogma.

To unfriend or not to unfriend? That is the question.

While some may think that a decision is theirs and theirs alone, a fascinating article by Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus reveals how psychographics (rather than demographics) and target marketing helped Donald Trump win the 2016 Presidential election. If you've been casually filling out all those friendly questionnaires on Facebook, I urge you to read The Data That Turned the World Upside Down and learn what all of your "likes" and "clicks" have accomplished behind your back.

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To welcome in 2017, San Francisco Playhouse staged the West Coast area premiere of The Christians (which premiered at the Actors Theatre of Louisville during the 2014 Humana Festival of New American Plays). As an atheist, I'm not always drawn to plays about religion (a subject that can get pretty tiresome after a while). With the current political climate of power-hungry evangelical bullies on a self-righteous roll, I entered the theatre hoping (not praying) that Lucas Hnath's highly-acclaimed play would not be just another adventure in come-to-Jesus Bible thumping.

To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. As the playwright explains: "A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see. A place where the invisible is (at least for a moment) made visible. The theater can be that, too."



The setting for The Christians is an evangelical megachurch that, in ten short years, has mushroomed from a modest ministry to its current roster of several thousand members. As the play begins, Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco) is telling his followers why this particular day is so very important. The good news he shares is that the church has finally paid off its debt and is free at last ("Thank God, Almighty, we're free at last!").

Although he is not tasked with the administrative responsibilities of running a megachurch, the church's newly-acquired financial security offers Pastor Paul an opportunity to guide his flock in a new direction. As he describes his experience at a recent religious conference, he tells his congregants how a moral crisis left him sitting on the toilet, talking to God, and praying for guidance. To his surprise, God helped him see that the traditional concept of hell (with flames, the devil, etc.) is nothing more than man-made fiction. The real hell is life on earth.

Anthony Fusco as The Pastor in a scene from The Christians
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

After much soul-searching, Pastor Paul has decided to steer his church away from the traditional vision of hell. As he explains what this will mean, his Associate Pastor, Brother Joshua (Lance Gardner), attempts to rebut this new approach by quoting chapter and verse from the Bible. However, Pastor Paul is quick to point out that the true meaning of the word in the Bible that most people use to signify "hell" is actually a reference to the garbage dump where dead bodies were left to rot in Biblical times.

When Brother Joshua announces that he cannot accept the concept that there might not be a hell to be afraid of throughout one's life, Pastor Paul politely welcomes him (and anyone who feels the same way) to leave his congregation. The shock and awe which follows is most informative. Members of the congregation who have worked closely with Brother Joshua in various outreach programs soon follow him to his new church. Those who remain find themselves losing friends, faith, and face in the community. Pastor Paul's wife, Elizabeth (Stephanie Prentice), has a few revelations of her own to share with her husband.


Unlike the usual arguments about whether or not God exists, Hnath zeroes in on a much more vulnerable aspect of religion's power over the people. Karl Marx summed it up pretty well when he wrote that "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." The modern translation of Marx's statement would be that the business model of organized religion rests on a foundation of marketing fear for profit. Take away the threat of eternal damnation and you lose a valuable revenue stream.

Lance Gardner and Anthony Fusco in a scene
from The Christians (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

In his program note from the Artistic Director, Bill English (who designed the handsome unit set and directed the production) writes:
“We humans are always challenged (perhaps, at this time, more than usual) to bring compassion rather than fear to conflict and misunderstanding, to try to understand those with whom we disagree, and to look deeply and fiercely at our own beliefs. We all have beliefs. Even atheists ‘believe’ there is no God. Why do we believe what we do? Often we are conditioned by our upbringing to believe. Most of us outgrow our childhood beliefs in Santa or the tooth fairy. But we believe in God, or Jesus, or Mohammed or Moses, or nothing, much as a child believes. We give over blindly to our faith without questioning. We simply ‘know’ things are so. And we base our lives, our daily decisions, and our commitments on that ‘knowing.’ Our beliefs become a comfort, a challenge, a curse.” 
Anthony Fusco and Warren David Keith in a scene
from The Christians (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
“What happens to us when our beliefs are challenged? When a prophet comes to say ‘What you are believing is wrong’? When laws change that affect our beliefs? Or when we doubt that our beliefs are true? We are beset with fear. It seems to us as if our entire reason for being has been negated, the ground we stand on taken away, our lives deprived of meaning. And of course, we humans are not at our best when we’re afraid. Fear makes us react in anger; we hate, we strike out, we withdraw, we mourn. We can become destructive, to ourselves and others. Our communities and families can be torn apart. The Christians takes us on a journey into belief, doubt, fear, and prophecy so that we may learn and grow.” 
Millie Brooks in a scene from The Christians
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

What Hnath also does (quite brilliantly) is demonstrate how people who have been brainwashed with church dogma are all too willing to choose the devil they know over pretty much anything else. In a relatively short time, Pastor Paul is deserted by his flock and finds himself without friends, family, or his following. Will he be able to start another church and build a congregation which has no need to rely on visions of souls burning in hell? His best bet might be to form a local chapter of the Church of St. Priapus.

One cannot fault the casting for this production. Anthony Fusco is a perfect choice for the idealistic Pastor Paul, with Lance Gardner offering an immaculately tailored presence as Brother Joshua. Warren David Keith shines as Elder Jay (the member of the church's Board of Directors who doesn't always bear tidings of comfort and joy) with Millie Brooks as a nervous and impassioned congregant who offers testimony about how her life has suffered since Pastor Paul's attempt to steer his church in a new direction. The scenes between Pastor Paul and his wife are especially moving.

Anthony Fusco and Stephanie Prentice in a scene
from The Christians (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

Hnath specifies that the characters in The Christians should speak while using corded microphones, an affectation that can work both for and against the play's impact. The choir of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco (under the musical direction of Tania Johnson and Mark Sumner) performs four songs ("Hold To God's Unchanging Hand," "Catch on Fire," "I Feel Like Going On," and "Farther Along") while onstage. I could have sworn I also heard an organ solo of "Nearer, My God, To Thee," a song which (at least for atheists) is closely associated with the sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912. Here's the trailer:


Performances of The Christians continue through March 11 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here for tickets).

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In his welcoming speech to the opening night audience for Women in Jeopardy! (which premiered in February 2015 at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York), Center Rep's artistic director, Michael Butler, stressed that, in addition to how proud he was to present a new play by a female playwright, he was especially happy that most of the new plays presented by Center Rep in recent years had been written by women. Set in and around Salt Lake City (as well as at a campsite in Carmel Canyon, Utah), Women in Jeopardy! is billed as "Thelma and Louise meets The First Wives Club."

Lynda DiVito, Elisabeth Nunziato, and Jamie Jones in a 
scene from Women in Jeopardy! (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

The plot for this delicious farce is simple. Three middle-aged women have become close-knit friends after becoming single again. One is a divorcee, another discovered that her husband was gay. The third, Liz (Elisabeth Nunziato), has a voluptuous 19-year-old daughter named Amanda (Sarah Brazier), who has a major chip on her shoulder, is spoiled rotten, and has a big mouth to prove it.

Sarah Brazier as Liz's daughter, Amanda, in a scene
from Women in Jeopardy! (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

In recent weeks, Mary (Lynda DiVito) and Jo (Jamie Jones) have become concerned because Liz has been acting a bit strange. As the play opens, they are gathered at Mary's house where Liz has brought her new beau, Jackson (Jason Kuykendall), a creepy dentist with a fetish for vintage dental instruments, the behavior of a smarmy lecher, and a tendency to fill his conversations with double entendres dripping with lust.

Not only are Mary and Jo afraid that Liz is so infatuated with Jackson (whose dental hygienist suspiciously disappeared as she walking from Jackson's office to her car), they are absolutely frantic at the news that Liz is letting her new boyfriend take Amanda on a camping trip to Carmel Canyon (where there is no reception for cell phones).

When Liz's friends lure Amanda over to Mary's house for some of her favorite Bundt cake, the idea of Jackson getting his hands on Amanda's nubile body sends them into a frenzy. The fact that the body of Jackson's hygienist has been found in a tree and the police think Jackson may be a suspect, convinces them that he could be a serial killer. Desperate for a way to protect Amanda when her mother is too giddy with lust to act like a parent, they embark on a double-pronged plan of attack.
  • First, they visit the local police station, where the handsome Officer Kirk (who looks like he could be Jackson's identical twin) coyly avoids giving out any information which could be confidential. Tensions flare as Mary (who is extremely horny) starts flirting with Kirk while the homely Jo is completely ignored by the handsome policeman.
  • Second,  Mary enlists the help of Amanda's recent boyfriend, Trenner (Eric Carlson), who fancies himself a catch for older women although he's a bit of a lunkhead. The fact that Mary has known Trenner since he was in diapers doesn't diminish his sexual fantasies but, as Trenner talks about his broken relationship with Amanda, it becomes obvious that he's easily manipulated by women and pacified with food.
Eric Carlson as Trenner in a scene from Women in Jeopardy!
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When Jackson backs out of his date with Amanda so he can go camping with her mother, Trenner convinces Amanda to go hiking with him. Needless to say, Mary and Jo are also headed toward Carmel Canyon.

With scenery designed by Richard Olmstead, costumes by David Leonard, and choreography by Jennifer Perry, Michael Butler has directed Women in Jeopardy! in a style that highlights Wendy MacLeod's skill at crafting a frothy mixture of bitchy sarcasm, intergenerational insults, and an ingenious plot. Forget Thelma and Louise. Forget The First Wives Club. The audience wholeheartedly embraced MacLeod's rollicking farce as if it were the love child of Frasier and Noises Off.

Jason Kuykendall, Jamie Jones, and Lynda DiVito in a
scene from Women in Jeopardy! (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

To its credit, Center Rep had an ace up its sleeve for this production. Those who have always enjoyed the deadpan delivery of Bea Arthur will fall head over heels for Jamie Jones's biting portrayal of the frustrated and slightly over the hill Jo. Witnessing her deliver one gag line after another is like watching a baseball slugger hit one ball after another during practice. Although Women in Jeopardy! may require a more frenzied delivery than such characters as Vera Charles, Maude Findlay or Dorothy Zbornak, this is a chance to watch a master comic at work. Jones receives strong support from the rest of the cast (who are obviously having a blast onstage), but her artistic skills are hard to match.

Jamie Jones (Jo) and Lynda DiVito (Mary) in a scene
from Women in Jeopardy! (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

If you're having trouble coping with the lies and ineptitude of the Trump administration, I can't think of a better tonic than treating yourself to a performance of Women in Jeopardy! It's one of the funniest plays I've seen in quite some time and (considering the current political environment) well worth a visit if you want to hold onto your sanity.  As many a physician will tell you, laughter is often the best medicine.

Performances of Women in Jeopardy! continue through February 25 at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek (click here for tickets).

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