The Works of
I’m Jewish by birth, liberal by conviction and an atheist after observation and introspection took me to hard-won conclusions that don’t really belong in this forum. But via a convoluted path of personal incident and free-associative reading, all that has made me kind of fascinated with Christian theology and philosophy; which is all the more reason to say how much I admire and appreciate the approach that Fellowship for Performing Arts has taken to Christian theatre. As headed by Max McLean (who has so-far had a hand in all offerings as actor and/or director and/or co-author), the company hews to a philosophy of presenting what is unequivocally come-to-Jesus fare in a general audience arena. This is no easy thing to accomplish, but they do it through a careful combination of good storytelling—craft comes first—and avoiding overt preachiness, content to let any message implicit in the material take care of itself. (The only other entertainer I know to pull this off with consistent success is novelist William Peter Blatty, most of whose work, and certainly the triumvirate for which he’s most noted, The Exorcist, Legion and The Ninth Configuration [aka Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane], are absolutely Christian novels; but—in part because Christian fiction was not anything close to being a mainstream category when these were first published; though mostly because they’re delivered so artfully—are just as easily read as fairly rich genre fare.)
FPA's work is currently on tour, hitting various US venues, and will hit London as well. Their primary center of interest is the work of C.S. Lewis, perhaps the most influential Christian writer of the 20th Century, and their signature work is an adaptation of The Screwtape Letters. When I first saw it in 2010, and that was an encore engagement in NYC, I had very mixed feelings about it. This time I liked it better—and I’m not altogether sure if it’s because I knew what to expect or because a different actor in the lead (a flamboyantly grandiose Brent Harris) gave it a somewhat different energy. But I was glad of the second visit.
For the record, what I originally wrote is this:
An adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, that has very successfully played NYC before in various venues (as well as regionally), is making a renewed appearance at the Westside Theatre on 43rd Street; but for all the accolades it has received, I find it a disquieting entry. Lewis, arguably the most influential Christian writer of the 20th Century, conceived the original short book as a treatise on the nature of sin and redemption, in the form of letters from an executive demon, Screwtape, to one of a lower order, his nephew Wormwood, who has been assigned to bring a particular “patient” into the fold of Hell, away from Christianity and morality—with severe consequences to Wormwood should he fail. The wordplay is witty in a Shavian/Wilde-like manner, as Screwtape’s upside down view of the universe is used to ironic effect, and pithy observations are made—for example: if you get the patient to take pride in a selfless act, you mitigate the selflessness with the sin of self-satisfaction—but in the end, The Screwtape Letters is still a Christian tract, meant to sermonize and proselytize (however ironically), if not overtly to recruit and convert; and once its premise is established, and the first few letters “delivered” (in all senses of the word), it can only spin variations on a repetitive theme.
The saturnine, dinner-jacketed grandeur of star co-adapter/co-director Max McLean (his collaborator is Jeffrey Fiske) certainly commands stage impressively, as he prowls and paces and ponders; with non-verbal feral “commentary” from his imp assistant Toadpipe (the adorably spiky-tempered and gremlin-like Karen Eleanor Wight, replete with full-body fur); but there comes a point where, no matter what your belief system, you may tire of the ideological game and its agenda of bringing you into the fold of Him that Screwtape calls “the enemy.” My companion of the evening suggested that the show might be better suited to the Christian theatre circuit, and I agree it's well suited; but with C.S. Lewis you're dealing with world literature, not merely popular evangelical fiction, like the Left Behind series…so lines of demarcation are hard to define—and probably very personal.
FPA’s other entries of the season, also to tour, are an adaptation of Lewis’s theological novel, The Great Divorce, about a man who visits the crossroads of the afterlife and is made to understand that the release of addiction—whether it be to things chemical or things physical or things emotional—leads inevitably to happiness and God’s love; and an original play, still workshopping, by McLean and Chris Cragin-Day called Martin Luther on Trial, that one directed by Michael Parva, which is about just that, except the proceeding is held in heaven, St. Peter is the adjudicator, Luther’s wife is for the defense, the Devil is the prosecutor and most of the witnesses are technically dead. It asks the question: at what point in the life of a Godly person pursuing Godly ends, who jumps the rails and loses Godly perspective, do you stop forgiving his trespasses; or do you?
In both cases, if you’re not a believer, you have to make peace with the theological underpinning as a convention of the storytelling universe; if you can, there are rewards of language and ideation and theatricality. In both cases, too, there’s a kind of larger-than-life-ness to the performance style, not quite as unrestrained as in Screwtape, but a few more kliks above heightened naturalism than I thought did the plays the most good, and I wish that could be dialed down here and there, at least to the point where you’re not quite so consciously aware of actors (and good ones) at work. (I should pause here to note that McLean’s actors are not necessarily believers themselves; like any other serious-minded company, FPA looks toward the best, for their needs, from the available professional talent pool.) And I use the word “naturalism” advisedly, because these are obviously not naturalistic plays. But I think that’s all the more reason to find a sweet spot between reality and metaphor.
Small objection, though. If FPA is within striking distance of your neighborhood (check their website for upcoming engagements), they offer a worthy example of how theatre with a specialized agenda can be made engaging in general terms.
By contrast, Angel Reapers at the Signature is no great friend of Christianity, though perhaps that oversimplifies the point—it's really an exploration of societies out of balance. The dance-with-text piece by choreographer Martha Clarke and playwright Alfred (Driving Miss Daisy) Uhry focuses on an early Shaker community (very possibly the first). The principal setting is a Shaker meeting hall. Though at first we’re witness to what appears to be the weekly, Sunday community worship, including rituals of recitation, song, dance and a sense of rapture put forth with increasing abandon toward wild catharsis, this is punctuated by, sometimes even staged serpentinely around, brief "isolated" scenes of dialogue and dance that show the flip side of worship whose tenets are as much rooted in self-denial and repression as godliness. These fleeting glimpses are suggestive and minimalist, in the manner of drama whose physical-verbal language haas been distilled to basic, arguably even primal, essences. But on fascinating aggeregate, they chronicle the slow, secret inner deconstruction of mercilessly maintained outer bliss. Angel Reapers’ very much in balance conflation of realism, representationalism and impressionism is impressive and “imprintive”; the mark it leaves won’t fade in a hurry.
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