An unorthodox Church in Wellfleet

Revival tactics
By CAROLYN CLAY  |  July 27, 2012

church-1
HIPSTER SINS Despite its rousing gospel finale, the Church is less interested in converting its audience than in throwing it for a loop. 

Take your gaze from your navel and place your eyes on the prize! So exhorts an evangelical reverend from the back of the theater before the lights go up on Church, a subversive if puzzling gambit by much-awarded Korean-American writer/director Young Jean Lee. The 2007 play, which takes the form of a revival meeting, is the second production (through August 11) of Wellfleet's newly formed Harbor Stage Company, and the prize, in this case, is a smugly satisfied walk with Jesus.

If that's not a reward you think you want, then the 70-minute theater piece masquerading as a church service will not convince you. In fact, despite its rousing gospel finale, the play is less interested in converting its audience than in throwing it for a loop. Lee, the atheist child of Christian evangelicals, does not deploy her four reverends — one man and three women, played here with unctuous sincerity by Jonathan Fielding, Amanda Collins, Amie Lytle, and an arresting Brenda Withers, under Withers's direction — to denounce such usual suspects as gay marriage and abortion. Instead, these nice if somewhat nonsensical folks inveigh against prominent hipster sins like whining, self-absorption, and believing oneself special. In other words, Lee, as she admitted to the Village Voice five years ago, is preaching to a choir made up of herself and her privileged, intellectual friends, with all their artsy pretensions and myopic concerns.

An audacious idea that doesn't really make for compelling theater, Church is a more straight-faced than strait-laced or overtly satiric offering by two-time Obie winner Lee, whose more scathing riff on racial identity politics, The Shipment, was presented at the ICA in 2010. True, the indictment of the audience by Reverend José (Fielding), delivered in the dark before the seemingly earnest — if hyperbolic — testifying gets started, is an arresting mix of brimstone and seduction, its pulpit-like rhythms expertly deployed. Almost soothingly, the unseen proselytizer slams us as "pigs fat with self-absorption," moving "pridefully toward our next pointless endeavor" or outburst of "masturbatory rage." But once the smooth-talking rev and his dewy-eyed acolytes take the stage to elicit prayer requests, smile through serene if sometimes discomfortingly surreal tales of past excess, and dress up a few pointless parables in modern-fairy-tale clothing, stasis sets in. So much so that, when it comes, we are more than ready to embrace a bit of expressive dance to Christian rock or warm to a finale that brings an augmented cast through the back door of the stage to clap and sing, declaring themselves, in the words of the spiritual, "so busy praising my Jesus that I ain't got time to die." (Well, yes, that would be a comfort, which is doubtless non-believer Lee's point.)

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