nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 1, 2005
Ryan Paulson's one-man show Pentecostal Wisconsin is both a very entertaining yarn and a splendid showcase for Paulson's skills as storyteller, performer, and actor. He's a most engaging host as he takes us back to some key moments in his childhood where he struggles to understand himself, God, and their relationship with one another.
Paulson grew up in a town in Wisconsin. Even though most of the folks there—hearty but dour Scandinavians, the kind we're used to hearing Garrison Keillor tell us about on Prairie Home Companion—are Lutherans, Ryan's parents converted to Pentecostalism when they were in college. So Ryan grew up as part of an unusual minority in his home town, attending church almost every single day. This fundamentalist sect believes in being born again and in speaking in tongues, and in humorous anecdotes, Paulson relates his own experiences with these singular religious phenomena. His story is centered mostly on how—after a visit to town by a celebrity pastor (he'd actually been on The 700 Club on TV)—the teenage Ryan suddenly and supposedly found his calling—as a minister of the Pentecostal Church.
Since Paulson himself is standing before us, in all his profane, occasionally blasphemous, East-Coast-liberal glory, the outcome of this autobiographical incident is never in doubt. But his journey from scared kid trying to find God to, well, the man we see before us now, is definitely worth the telling, especially because Paulson tells it so well. He conjures memorable events and personalities from his youth: the effeminate pastor at his Church, a pair of "slow" congregants who mangle the English language and Biblical precepts, a husband-and-wife gospel-singing team, a strapping and preternaturally devout teenager who says things like "Why isn't it 'heaven-o' instead of 'hello'?" It's generally hilarious stuff, but it's always told with affection and understanding: Paulson gives these folks their due and is ever mindful of how important their values are to them—even when they make little sense to him or (perhaps) his audience.
The play would have a bit more kick, I think, if some it reached some kind of conclusion about its subjects and themes—as it stands, Paulson finally has his catharsis and realizes that the ministry isn't for him, and then he turns up in New York City; but we don't really know how he feels about God or his new "calling" or what he thinks he's learned from the experiences he's related to us. A bit more closure, and a bit more of a mature perspective, might turn an entertaining and well-written monologue into a genuinely profound play.
But Paulson the actor is always engaging and fun to watch; his presence is enormously appealing and palpable, and I will be eager to see him perform in other works (his own or others'). Director Virginia Scott must be credited with tying the package up with professionalism and intelligence.