The Christians

KINETIC CHRISTIANS LARGE SQUAREKinetic Theater’s production of  Lucas Hnath’s The Christians is a terrific drama, but it’s heavily philosophical and thus necessitates a commitment towards an open, curious mind.

At first, I was locked into my seat thinking that I had been tricked into a sermon.  There’s a giant, looming cross suspended over the platform.  A choir comes out to sing.  A bunch of clean-cut church-leader types infiltrate the audience, begin shaking hands…then David Whalen’s Pastor Paul begins talking.

There’s that infinite vagueness of religious verse:

Because you have rejected this message,
relied on oppression
and depended on deceit,
this sin will become for you
like a high wall, cracked and bulging,
that collapses suddenly, in an instant.

That’s Isaiah 30, 12:13.  It’s imperative to theme of this play.  At first, not so clear.  You’re stewing in the sermon, not realizing the moral is marinating.  A religious question is but the scent for a main course which centers around the flawed humanity of conviction.

Director Andrew Paul describes where the motivation of this play originates:

“Hnath [the writer]’s goal was to write a play that opened with a sermon that a non-Christian could listen to and think, “well, maybe this preacher’s got a point.” ….He just wanted to get a decent number of audience members past certain assumptions about Christianity and hear what the characters are trying to communicate.”

David Whalen (center) and company
David Whalen (center) and company

So, this play dives into a difficulty of religion: its questions.  Whalen’s Pastor very much holds the kind, familiar but invariably patriarchal and commanding figure of a charming, friendly pulpit-monger: the storyteller, the guide, the man with a crystal connection to the Almighty in his heart. The part is Oxfords and khakis, with an always-smile and a discomfiting familiarity to the microphone always being two inches from his wise and prattling mouth.  Whalen carries this main character through the flight of his struggle.  It’s a blossoming affirmation.  We get to see the benevolent arrogance of a man blossom, then begin to torture itself to death.  He carries the tone of a man bred to lead led to the natural test of a religion’s vanity: the taboo of its inevitable doubts.

Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that this play centers around this pastor deciding that “hell” is a misinterpretation of the Bible.  The fear of hell, as postulated in the play, is an invention.  The reality Pastor Paul concedes is that god’s blessing bestows security onto and into everyone.  What a gip for the true-blue practicing Christians, eh?

What we then see is the unwinding of this man’s foundation.  His congregation splits and it’s kinda like the movie High Noon, but at the altar.  The man who conceives of a radical, new and challenging truth is shunned until he’s facing his doom completely alone.

Joshua Elijah Reese, David Whalen, & choi
Joshua Elijah Reese, David Whalen, & choir

The emotional power of this cast is outrageous.  Let’s start with Joshua Elijah Reese’s Associate Pastor Joshua.  A tightly-wound, normally restrained character who with his first lines begins to crack into a too-impassioned zealot.  We see the edges break, and Reese’s ability to show the exaggeration of this animated, emotionally vigorous man become begrudgingly distrustful.  We see a birth of his fundamentalism on stage, and it’s scary.  His conviction becomes a barb in a collection of facial tics:  reaction to the incredulous.  It’s awkward and it’s hairy.  But it’s real.  The emotion comes from a place of truth.  That’s what you end up watching—how disturbed this actor can make this character.

Same goes Robert Haley’s Church Elder Jay.  A man so self-possessed and clean-cut for life he boxes up with confrontation.  A hard-shelled animal encasing a soft-hearted man who knows better than to rock the boat.  I loved seeing the subtlety in this actor’s reactions.  He bites into silence with a clean, soundless gulp.  His nervousness has animation and it fed this character so much grave understanding and easily inferred meanings.

A realness too exists in Gayle Pazerski’s congregant Jenny.  Jenny comes alive with each question she asks, popping a new aspect of her character’s fortitude out with a terribly defensive logic.  Her curiosity is masochistic, because it dissolves one truth for another and thus her foundation quakes.   She becomes more emotionally wracked but stronger with each painful discovery and Pazerski trembles the level that a rational damning would do to her conviction.  She betrays some kind of human trust for dogma, but in so doing loses chunk by chunk bits of her trust in humanity.  Watching Pazerski’s portrayal of a harrowed woman come out of her troubles only to find existential doubt waiting in the road is pathetic. But somehow, she fiercely overcomes (sorry, spoiler).

David Whalen and Mindy Woodhead
David Whalen and Mindy Woodhead

What’s scary about this play is how innocuous the setting seems.  A church appeals as a refuge, particularly to the Christians.  But it comes with a contract: one that demands a certain tableau of assignations; such as, you accept Jesus.  But what if…that’s an option?  The whole system of consequence crumbles.

What is the weight of sin without consequence?

Mindy Woodhead’s Elizabeth is the Pastor’s Wife.  This part kills.  Man, she covers so much emotional ground.  So much power swept into the affirmative, once again, conviction of this self-strong woman disabling a broken skeptic with her righteous will.

I focus on the actors because that’s what this play delivers.  Woodhead’s performance brings up a staggering swell of emotional and self-righteous appeal.  This is a play about doubt and conviction.  But sometimes that it includes the conviction of doubt.

Besides the content and besides the subject matter, this play delves into a greatly human inquiry as to what drives us and how unrelenting is that need for absolute trust.  And with a 2000-year-old text filled with seeming metaphors that may or may not be literal, the fight ends up being two dogmas fighting it out in a ring.

The emotional fall-out should be illegal.  It’s the kind of grudge-making that begins wars.

Watch that match burn.  Watch serious people begin to fall apart and begin to become their true destined selves.

The Christians by Kinetic Theatre plays at the New Hazlett Theater through July 2nd. Tickets and more information can be found here.

Special thanks to Kinetic Theatre for complimentary press tickets. Photos courtesy of Rocky Raco.  

Love, Ethics, and Religion: Kinetic Theatre’s Season Lineup

11066705_363701277174275_7381434187525949191_nKinetic Theatre announces 2017 season – three exciting Pittsburgh premieres: Lucas Hnath’s The Christians, David Ives’ hilarious adaptation of Corneille’s The Liar, and Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love. Full summer casting announced: David Whalen and Joshua Elijah Reese star in The Christians, Ethan Saks, Erika Strasburg, & Sam Tsoutsouvas lead the ensemble cast in The Liar.

The Kinetic Theatre Company’s Executive Producing Director Andrew Paul has lined up three thought provoking, engaging, and, more importantly “very real” dramas that question relationships, religion, and ethics for the Pittsburgh area that are sure to leave theater goers deep in thought and maybe leave their sensibilities exhausted.  Paul is beckoning audiences to:  “come on down: this is your life!” A bit of realism for everyone.

Paul is back in Pittsburgh this year once again to leave theater goers entertained but questioning “who they are” and how they fit into the worlds he has chosen to explore. According to Kinetic Theatre’s press release: “the mission of Kinetic Theatre Co. is three-fold: to explore the issues facing our diverse and rapidly changing world through the language of theatre, to value text, both classic and contemporary, as our primary source of inspiration, and to honor, value, and respectfully compensate the artist.”

Rife with experienced and highly successful actors, Paul’s works this year will most definitely have audiences questioning their core beliefs. Not shying away from topics steeped in debates, Mr. Paul is very careful to remain loyal to his supportive Pittsburgh fan base by presenting them with tales that provide a spin on traditionalist thinking.

Those familiar with his work formerly as founder and artistic director of PICT (Pittsburgh Irish  Classical Theatre) know him for his production of “risky” works, and, although he is no longer with PICT, it hasn’t stifled his willingness to move to the “next level” in challenging the sensibilities of his audiences.  He is single handedly providing Pittsburgh with theater worth seeing, adding to the tried and true knowledge that Pittsburgh is “someplace special” with “someplace thoughtful.”

When looking at the three plays he will be producing and directing, I found Paul to be a fearless producer and director who is not afraid to pull the proverbial plug on traditional beliefs, and Pittsburgh audiences should applaud his selections.Meeting with Mr. Paul in person, it was easy to sense the excitement and anticipation for Kinetic’s upcoming season and, as always, Pittsburgh in the Round will be paying close attention to these upcoming performances.

KINETIC CHRISTIANS LARGE SQUAREIn his first production The Christians, Paul is producing Lucas Hnath’s very timely, relevant, an unapologetic look at faith in America and challenge of understanding people’s belief systems. The Christians is a play loosely based on the life or Pastor Rob Bell who built a megachurch in Michigan. The play explores Bell’s – in this case named Pastor Paul (played by native Pittsburgher and fan favorite David Whalen) – disruptive life and his subsequent firing from his congregation because of his antithetical preaching. “Pastor Paul has spent 20 years successfully growing his church from a modest storefront to a gleaming megachurch, but he no longer believes in Hell; he (unrealistically) feels that his congregation will be happy to hear what he has to say. In a homily one Sunday morning that rocks the spiritual world of his congregation, which backfires and brings the congregation to its spiritual knees.”

Add to the drama is his troubled relationship with his Associate Pastor Joshua (played by another beloved Pittsburgher, Joshua Elija Reese) who feigns his proclamation and the church elders and congregation. This revelation rocks the foundations of the beliefs of his flock, which in turn is intended to disrupt the foundations of the audiences’ beliefs.  This timely feature explores an attack on the very Catholic and conservative belief that, according to Paul, if there is no hell, what motivation do we have in this life to obtain a pathway to heaven?

Paul utilizes the role of the “chorus” in this play, which is actually the congregation’s choir, providing background to the action taking place in the lives of Pastor Paul and his family, along with Associate Pastor Elijah’s battle for the souls of the believers. Additionally, as in most church services, Paul has all of his principles speaking the play using handheld microphones to present the very real feel of a church service.

The Christians is running June 16 through July 2, 2017 at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Shore.

KINETIC LIAR LARGE SQUAREKinetic Theatre’s second offering is The Liar, a David Ives comic production based on Corneille’s The Liar. According to Paul, The Liar is “a sparkling urban romance as fresh as the day Pierre Corneille wrote it, brilliantly adapted for today by All In the Timing’s David Ives. Paris, 1643.” In The Liar – which puts a modernist spin on a French classic – Dorante (Ethan Saks) is a charming young man newly arrived in the capital, and he has but a single flaw: he cannot tell the truth. In quick succession, he meets Cliton (Patrick Halley), a manservant who cannot tell a lie, and falls in love with Clarice (Erika Strasburg), a charming young woman whom he, unfortunately, mistakes for her friend Lucrece.

The entire play is replete with misunderstandings and a series of breathtakingly intricate lies and springs one of the Western world’s greatest comedies.  Even when it serves no discernible purpose, Dorante compulsively and ceaselessly makes false statements.  This sublimely funny adaptation, written in rhymed iambic pentameter, is packed full of verbal ingenuity and has thrilled audiences in New York and across the country. CMU Drama alums Ethan Saks and Erika Strasburg play Dorante, the title character, and Clarice, the object of his affections, with Kinetic associate artist Sam Tsoutsouvas as Dorante’s clueless father, Geronte. Sumptuous scenery by Gianni Downs and costumes by Kim Brown make this a visual feast to match Ives’ hilarious text.

The Liar runs from July 13 through July 30, 2017 at the Henry Heymann Theater on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning.

KINETIC LOVE LARGE SQUAREWith religion and ethics having been explored, Kinetic Theatre’s third and final production this year is Mike Bartlett’s comedy Love, Love, Love. The show serves basically as an indictment on the “baby boomer” generation. This offering, divided up into three acts, explores the lives of a couple who meet and marry in the era of the Beatles – 1967 – the years of drugs, sex, and rock and roll – to their lives in typical suburbia in 1990 raising two children who are antagonist to their parents, to the final scene which takes place in 2011 when their ungrateful daughter shows up and demands that her parents buy her a house because they “owe her a life” that they didn’t provide her growing up. The main characters advance from the ages of 19 to 64. Love, Love, Love, states New York Times critic Ben Brantley in his rave review of the play’s American Premiere last November at the Roundabout Theatre Company,pulls you along through the decades with galloping satirical wit as Bartlett’s heat-seeking intelligence locates telling and authentic emotional detail.”

Love, Love Love has yet to be cast, but knowing how much talented actors are attracted to Paul’s ironic and satirical style, it certainly will be replete with branded thespians who are more than prepared to entertain.

Love, Love, Love runs from November 30 through December 13 at the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Avenue, Downtown.

For tickets and more information about Kinetic Theatre Company click here.

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