In the era of the megachurch, with its telegenic preacher, stadium-quality lighting and sound, and number of congregants ballooning into the thousands, there is something more than a little nostalgic about the tent revival, even for nonbelievers. This vanishing, primitive tradition of Pentecostalism — in which a limited number of worshipers gather under an often-sweltering tent to sing hymns, speak in tongues, listen to fables, and, in the more spirited services, witness alleged faith healing — has mostly been relegated to the dustbin of theistic history and the vivid imaginations of postmodern ironists.
Young Jean Lee, a hotshot South Korean playwright praised for her experimental approach to stagecraft, may be one of these postmodern ironists, or maybe she isn't. But her play Church, which premiered in New York in 2007, is certainly one of the most original approaches to the subject of a tent revival — and to theater itself — as you're likely to see. Outside its new home at the Vanguard, Fort Lauderdale's Thinking Cap Theatre has produced a perfectly calibrated Church that is as much a site-specific performance-art installation as it is an enjoyable retrograde variety show.
The setting is the location itself, an actual tent festooned with lights. By the time ticket holders take one of the 30 seats positioned in front of the unadorned stage, the preshow will have already begun, with the six-piece "Praise Band," led by choir director Sabrina Gore, pumping out gospel favorites with a rock twist. You'll be offered complimentary cookies and lemonade, and your program arrives in the form of a handheld fan glued to a wooden stick.
For the next hour, you'll hear songs of praise, recitations of Bible verses, requests for healing prayers, and stories of personal transformation triggered by an acceptance of the Almighty, enacted with earnest immersion and a refreshing lack of condescension by three talented "reverends": Ann Marie Olson, Vanessa Elise, and Carey Brianna Hart, all performing under their own names.
But it's the charismatic preacher who breathes most of the oxygen into this collapsible chapel. For this, we have Scott Douglas Wilson, acting under the nom de plume Reverend Jose, to thank. The reverend spends most of his stage time hilariously belittling his congregants for their lives of "disappointing mediocrity" before presenting God as the inevitable bromide to their lives of sin, aimlessness, and depression. Acting with his entire body and almost winking to us without ever succumbing to the temptation, Wilson delivers another outstanding performance. Peppering his parables with pregnant pauses of Barnumesque proportions, he approaches the character like a good adman, telling us why we're worthless until we buy his product.
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And the more you listen to him, the crazier he sounds: His sermons are incoherent, doom-laden, sometimes oratorically dazzling cautionary tales rife with non sequiturs, unfinished stories, and cartoonish voice impersonations — the crazed ramblings of a bumptious raconteur drunk on the blood of Christ.
Evangelicals may be bothered by the approach of Lee and this production's faithful director, Nicole Stodard, for the way they mock the minister's pomposity. But there's more to ire believers in the most benign Bill Maher comment than there is in the entirety of the good-humored Church; there were even moments that moved me deeply, making me appreciate the minutest things we take for granted.
But the main reason it's difficult to be offended by Church is because the play is too scattershot to deliver a consistent message. Lee is not a polemicist so much as a mashup artist. Her tent revival is both a sly parody and a loving homage, a construction and a deconstruction, a politically progressive chapel and a fire-and-brimstone time warp.
Religion can be all these things at once, Lee seems to be saying. Or maybe I'm reading too much into it. Perhaps Lee just loves the pageantry, the drama, and, yes, the theater of old-time religion. And in translating this vintage milieu with loving veracity, Stodard has given us a new kind of theater. Can I get an amen?