Friday, March 28, 2008

Religious Theater

Growing up, I was very active in my teen group at church. However, since I wasn't all that interested in sports outside of the occasional recreation or going to the occasional game and didn't have a great singing voice, I had to find other ways to participate. Primarily, it was through Bible quizzing and drama.

However, the non-musical dramas in church were often highly disappointing, especially those written for teenagers. Rarely was there a character created that I could believe in. The monologues were hollow and the dialog was too often tritely moralistic. People I knew didn't talk this way--not even the devoutly religious people that I knew. There also seemed to be a fear of including conflict, and without conflict, you can't really have good drama.

I came to associate Christian drama with the mediocre at best and tedious most commonly. It lacked in authenticity while being heavy in jingoism.

This is something that bothered me for a long time. There used to be great drama with Christian themes--great drama that took advantage of all the power of theater. However, sometime during the 80s, it seemed that drama was sanitized to remove anything remotely dangerous. In fact, what happened to drama is something that also happened to Christian literature--another area where there are numerous examples of truly great work. It became bland and sanitized. Worse, some of what passes for Christian literature today is truly atrocious when it comes to good writing.

At some point, it seemed that if it was labeled Christian, then it automatically got stamped with a "good" mark. This led to mediocrity. I'd even argue this passed over into our politics. If someone calls himself a born-again Christian, then he must be "good," and no further critical thinking need be applied.

It's a trend that does disservice to God. Whatever happened to Orville Chambers clarion call to produce our utmost for His highest? Whatever happened to the idea that if you were doing work for God, it ought to be the very best possible? That He deserved only excellence, not simply a lackadaisical semi-effort shorn of careful thought and intellectual struggle?

What has inspired this line of thought?

The fact that during Easter week I saw two plays that buck the trend. They were two religious plays that were outstanding. Granted, you aren't likely to see either of them performed in a church, but both dealt with religious issues in a respectful, honest, and artistic manner.

The first was Thunder at Dawn done in Riverwalk's Black Box at the Creole Gallery. It was a highly powerful show that I wish I could have seen more than once.

In it, three soldiers meet at the Rusty Nail after getting off execution duty. While they are dressed modern, carry guns, and refer to current events, it is soon obvious that they were at the crucifixion of Christ.

It's an intense story with the youngest soldier, a boot who has just recently touched down in the desert, broken up because he believes they have just executed a holy man. Joe Quick did an excellent job of convincingly portraying a boy in despair and fear. He believes that Christ will return after three days and will want revenge upon the soldiers who killed him.

Ben Holzhausen plays the cynical sergeant to whom this was simply another execution of another terrorist insurgent. He's hardened by combat and believes only in army discipline.

Rick Dethlefsen as the senior officer provided a richly textured performance in which he pretends to treat this execution like any other while taking a journey that eventually reveals his character's vulnerabilities and fears.

Together, the three portray a pretty stark reality--not one that is designed to comfort the audience. There is strong language, drinking, and banter about prostitution. The soldiers aren't sanitized. They're real. This makes for a story that is powerful, beautiful, and ultimately challenging. There is a lot to think about when you leave the theater. There are questions presented without answers being given. The answers are what the audience must search for, and in searching, possibly find something of far greater meaning than if it were packaged in pretty paper with a bow.

The other show I saw over the weekend was Performance Network's Doubt, another intensely religious show that breaks the modern mold and hearkens back to a faith that is intellectually honest. It's a play in which there are no easy answers and nothing is given to the audience. Rather, the answers must be sought after and questioned.

However, more on that one later. While I was writing this, I received a call from Don Calamia (see photo, left) at Pride Source. He and I are going to begin discussing the three versions of Doubt: BoarsHead, Detroit Rep, and Performance Network, this coming Tuesday in this space and at his blog, Confessions of a Cranky Critic.


Anonymous said...

As one who has pursued Christ in theater and performing, I shout "hurray!" to read your blog. I will learn more about these shows as well and share with my friends who are actors.

Bridgette Redman said...

Welcome! I hope you get a chance to see or read both these shows. "Doubt" has become extremely popular and is showing in theaters around the country. The other show is lesser known and the black box performance last year was the only time I'd heard of it being done.