nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
January 11, 2008
Young Jean Lee's new performance Church has the usual marks of originality and freshness that this playwright-director generally brings onto the stage. This time she transforms the theatre into a church, reminding us that the religious service is a ritualistic performance in itself.
The show starts with the audience in the dark while an actor delivers a funny and witty monologue in a preaching voice, telling us that we are all sinners for various reasons such as smoking and being too ambitious or too un-ambitious. The text is a wonderful piece of writing, insightful and humorous, that slightly hints at Peter Handke's Offending the Audience, although it doesn't go that far in "offending" us.
However, the beginning of the show sets the expectations high, but the rest of it fails to fulfill them—maybe in the spirit of a church sermon, as people go to God's place in the hope that they will be uplifted or redeemed but that happens rarely. It might be that this is Lee's intention, to leave us with an unfulfilled need for catharsis.
The performance consists of four "reverends" inter-cutting their speeches: three young and naïve-looking women, true "believers" (Weena Pauly, Katy Pyle, and Katie Workum) and a man (Brian Bickerstaff). Their rants have a surreal and absurdist touch, mixing some sort of spiritual message with narrated personal experiences, interpretations, and revelations. The monologues are funny and imaginative, and are probably meant to mock the biblical stories and the way in which people invent narratives that might bring them closer to God.
Although in the form of a sermon, the text delivered by the actors is never "preachy" in the sense of providing a clear message of what's the intention of this show, what's the author's position on religion and church actually. It's refreshingly humorous and light not to have a clear position and to offer imaginative stories instead of philosophical/spiritual bites of advice and wisdom, but the audience is left without a sense of the meaning of this experience, because it's obviously not a religious one but it's quite lukewarm in mocking a religious one.
As a non-narrative show without a defined journey/progression, the performance includes a vibrant dance that's a nice piece of choreography, and the finale, a sort of surprise with 50 choir members invading the stage and singing under the dynamic and sexy direction of Stephanie Pistello, with a focus on the soloist Megan Stern.
What else can I say without attracting the wrath of the God of Artistic Creativity but still pleasing the God of Honest Criticism? Overall Church is a very entertaining show that leaves one with unanswered questions about the religious experience and its theatrical reflection, plus a sense that depth and spirituality are to be found elsewhere if there's any need for them. Maybe in a real church.