Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Church by Young Jean-Lee, Available Light, Riffe Center; August 20, 2009

"I beg for haven: Prisons, let open you gates-

A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

Executioners near the woman at the window.

Damn you, Elijah, I'll bless Jezebel tonight.

Lord, cried out the idols, Don't let us be broken;

Only we can convert the infidels tonight.

Has God's vintage loneliness turned to vinegar?

He's poured rust into the Sacred Well tonight."

-Agha Shahid Ali, "Ghazal"

I've always loved old gospel music and Renaissance religious art, but the religious expressions that really move me or raise my hackles are plagued with doubt. Like they're working through something to convince themselves. Current 93, Leonard Cohen, and now Young Jean-Lee's new play, Church. Young Jean-Lee has said she tries to make whatever the last show she'd like to make is. It's like she's writing herself into aesthetic corners and trusting that the truth of her approach and the truth of the performances will carry her out. And Available Light, I believe doing the first performance of this not done by Jean-Lee's own troupe, shows up again as one of the most interesting, provocative theater companies Columbus has or has ever had.

The play is about working through her lack of belief, or lack of concrete belief anyway, and it's structured like a televangelist/mega-church's service I used to grow up listening to because I fell asleep too late with the TV on, with gentle words in soothing cadence that explode into almost baffling anger and then recede but somehow feel like they never lost control, never lost the arc of the message. It opens on a darkened stage with Reverend Jose (Ian Short) saying in an even tone that gets progressively more and more of an edge, as it calls out the audience for grasping for tiny things, and talking about our attempts to quit smoking, quit drinking, quit bad relationships and "that's what you talk about when you're trying to be deep." When the lights come up there's Reverend Kate (Kate Watts, so good in God's Ear as the couple's almost-oblivious daughter) asking the audience questions and turning somewhat ludicrous, mocking "prayer requests" into things that aren't so ludicrous.

And it goes through sermons from Kate, rambling and surreal but periodically stabbing you in the heart, Reverend Eleni (Eleni Papaleonardos), working through her addiction to be loved and exploding in an indictment of those who would use religion for bigotry or exclusion, and Revererend Jose bounces off the good will he's already built up and then comes back out and starts discussing mummies and mummies are real and god and the devil are both mummies until he breaks down. Then there's dancing which is perfect, unforced, but well-choreographed, and sone group harmonies by Reverends Kate, Eleni and Casey (Acacia Duncan), and ultimately a choir comes out and takes the stage.

All of the Jean Lee plays I've seen seem to rotate around what you think, what you feel like you should think, what you say and what you're trying to avoid saying, both publicly and privately. This makes no attempt to hide the surface absurdity of some of these concepts (translated as chicken blood and mummies, using the old Bunuel surrealist technique of horror images to hint at a deeper psychological interest), but it flashes back and forth between these and totally rational words and explanations to create this dichotomy and draw you in. Maybe this is a little slighter than The Shipment or Dragons Flying to Heaven, but it might be more moving than either, at least for me.


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