If you've ever wondered how you were supposed to find God among the modern world's bafflements, like BlackBerrys and weight loss programs, then you probably need to go to Church. Not real church on Sunday morning, but playwright/director Young Jean Lee's latest production at P.S. 122. Church is an experimental worship service dedicated to the absurd, navel-gazing thoughts that run through our heads and how to reconcile them with Christian dogma. Lee's stream of consciousness play is funny and heartfelt but—probably on purpose—not always intelligible.
The setup and execution, like the best experimental theater, is simplicity itself: a tastefully restrained pulpit (designed by Eric Dyer) for four "reverends" who conduct a 45-minute service. This service includes song, dance, and a full choir at the end. Each of the four takes a turn giving a testimonial on how he or she came to Christianity, with the Rev. José (Greg Hildreth) handling the bulk of the preaching.
In his sermon, José gives a good example of how abstract and silly Lee's text can be: "The love of Jesus is a little baby goat that comes to you and kisses you and eats sand out of your hand. And the reason why I give it sand is that sand is warm and golden and kissed by the sun. And little baby goats like to eat things like tin cans."
Lee's point might sometimes be lost in the randomness of her text, but overall she seems to be commenting on the self-obsession inherent in modern society and how God doesn't, you know, like that. But sometimes, as in the example above, she is commenting on the randomness itself. As in her previous piece, Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, Lee shows a tendency to analyze the ways in which people keep talking around things, to themselves and to others. It is on this level that her new work succeeds tremendously: She asks us to consider if people have as much trouble talking to God as they do to each other.
Because of the play's zigzagging logic, Lee has trouble conveying a clear message. At the end of the "sermons," it is clear we are supposed to feel converted and sold on her opinions, but we are never really sure what we are converting to or what we are buying. This ambiguity is likely to ignite a few discussions after audiences see the show, but ultimately it probably won't get any further than a shrug of the shoulders and comments like "Who knows?"
The staging is very casual, and it is believable that this traveling ministry has set up temporary residency at P.S. 122. An apt example of the lack of dynamism in the blocking is when the three female sermonizers prepare for their dance number at the end. Instead of entering kinetically with the music, they clumsily move the podium out of the way and then slowly take off their shoes. The dance itself, choreographed by Fay Driscoll, is a lot of fun but purposely loose to allow the cast members to clinch their eyes tightly, shake their heads, and generally have a good, evangelical time with it.
All four sermonizers—Hildreth, Karinne Keithy, Weena Pauly, and Katie Workum—handle Lee's eccentric material very well. At times they erupt into fiery passion and jubilation, but usually they deliver the peculiar lines to great, deadpan effect. Hildreth's character has the most to say, and he moves through the text's sincerity and senselessness with calculated ease. In particular, his very serious delivery of a monologue about Satan and mummies is engaging and memorable. Likewise, Keithy's dreamlike account of rearranging a nativity scene and fighting villains with a superhuman angel was very entertaining.
Though I am loath to get too deep about it (because I don't really think that's what Lee would prefer), Church is a significantly moving and original piece with a lot to say about the delusions of egomania. It also challenges both cynics and believers to consider if Christianity might be the honest answer we're looking for in our lives. What's more impressive is that Lee takes a cue from our impulse-driven culture and cleverly compresses her new age gospel into a very funny and short program that's easy to download but takes time to decrypt.