The Rapture Project
nytheatre.com review by Jesica Avellone
January 5, 2007
The Rapture Project is an aptly-named romp through centuries of theatrical tradition to tell a story of religious fundamentalism today. The company, Great Small Works, folds the audience into their rambunctious, tongue-in-cheek universe from start to finish, ushering them into HERE's basement theatre with familiar tunes like "Down by the Riverside" and winking through every absurd convention. Faced with such careful construction, I was baffled to find the story itself both shallow and difficult to follow.
The human contingent of The Rapture Project is firmly entrenched in the world of morality plays and medicine shows. Costumed as one might imagine priests of an obscure religious sect would dress, in robes decorated with cryptic symbols and comically awkward headdresses, the charismatic ensemble uses live music, dance, and rhyme to introduce us to the basics of rapture mythology. In fact, End Times beliefs and a Christian fundamentalist timeline of the Earth are ingeniously mapped out on the face of the proscenium puppet theatre that serves as the set.
Through heavy doses of ironic humor, Great Small Works lets us know that their exploration of this highly relevant topic was not conducted with wide-eyed innocence. On the contrary, The Rapture Project is, at times, a biting critique of aspects of religious extremism, from the rejection of evolution to jihad. It's the sort of political theatre that should be encouraged in that the company gets its strong opinion across without being heavy-handed. All the same, I expected more from this play than "aren't fundamentalists crazy?"
The crux of the story lies in the interwoven lives of several archetypal citizens, all embodied by puppets. Rick and Carrie are gung-ho born-agains, traveling to the Middle East to continue their missionary work. There's a pierced, punk Muslim girl from Buffalo, bound for Mecca and an interview on Arabic TV; a corrupt body armor manufacturer and his employee who has vowed to bring him to justice; and others.
Those are all fascinating character types, but if you'll forgive me for saying this about puppets, I didn't understand their motivations. Too often, the next step in the plot would be introduced and I would be scratching my head. I understand why it's funny to have Susan Sontag and Satan battle for souls, and why the unexplainable yet thematic rapture of security guards is endearingly quirky; I just don't understand what deeper point is being made, although one does seem to exist. Perhaps that point and the journeys—physical and spiritual—of the puppet characters elude me because they're hidden beneath a thick layer of irrelevant one-liners. As visually stunning and theatrically innovative as this project certainly is, I was too bewildered for these images to resonate. I was expecting to see a play about something serious (the following is from the press release):
In an age when so many Americans believe in the imminent arrival of The End of Time, what does it mean that these believers have the ear of their highest ranking politicians?
But what I saw was a play about delightfully absurd divine intervention in the lives of kooky characters.
The Rapture Project was created by part of the multi-talented performing ensemble—John Bell, Trudi Cohen, and Stephen Kaplin, who all boast Bread and Puppet Theater credits, and founding member Jenny Romaine—and their collaborative work is to be commended. They create a joyful, inviting world for this play, and they do their substantial experience a disservice by making light of the topic they claim to investigate.