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The dangerous faith

Byron Woods 

The dangerous faith

Beware your beliefs: You are turning into them. That was the cautionary lesson from the week that theater got religion. In addition to the previously mentioned Souls Are Flying!, no less than three major openings laid hands on faith last week.

In the American debut of A Prayer for Owen Meany at Playmakers Rep, the stage adaptation of the 1989 John Irving novel dealt with a brilliant, eerie child apparently chosen by the deity not only for martyrdom, but to know its details beforehand. Raleigh Ensemble Players' Handler focused on the dilemmas a community of Appalachian snake handlers face when an errant member of the church is bitten, killed--and then resurrects three days later. Finally, what began as a shaggy-dog story in Flying Machine's Underneath the Lintel slowly turned into an extended exploration of the myth of the Wandering Jew.

No, none of the scenarios above can be said to mark Christianity's finest hour. But theater focuses on extremity. And one thing's for sure: The deity found at work in these productions is nothing if not extreme.

Lintel's winds up as a sadistic--but creative--torturer who rewards a moment of cruelty with 2,000 years of torment; a perfectionist bent on erasing all trace of the human mistake at the heart of the tale; a chess-master whose moves must be thought through, and carefully countered.

Handler's deity, meanwhile, commands his servants to pick up poisonous snakes to prove their love for him, and his for them. It's also instructive to note that in playwright Robert Schenkkan's world, resurrection is one thing; healing is quite another.

The deity in Owen Meany singles out a brilliant, deformed title character to be his messenger of death. "I'm in the death business," Owen mordantly confides to eternally uneasy companion, John. The other certainties in Owen's possession include the date of his own death, and the knowledge that he will be a martyr.

One fervently wishes--I nearly said "prays"--he were the only one. But in a time of Middle Eastern suicide bombers, and adolescent warriors in Africa and across the Pacific Rim, child martyrdom itself has been a growth industry in recent years. Across the globe, tens of thousands have been suitably programmed, told the treats awaiting them in the afterlife, following one brief moment of inconvenience.

Given such monstrosities, the extremity human cultures have traditionally reserved to the gods has had its bandwidth narrowed in recent years. Nor can contemporary Christianity be even said to have come as far from these predecessors as it might like to believe. As Jack Miles has noted, the Christian tradition can be viewed as one in which a father God permits--or demands--that his son must ultimately kill himself to prove his love for him and for humanity.

And we think our families are dysfunctional?

Two new major stage adaptations from novels made their way to us this season. All the King's Men was the first, A Prayer for Owen Meany is the second. While both are problematic in differing ways, call All the King's Men the more worthwhile of the two. Contrasting Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicle of guilt, responsibility and history in the South with Irving's windy prose and the lessons Irving's only truly crippled character--John Wheelwright, the book's emotionally crippled narrator--never learns. Only slowly--very slowly--does the novel reveal the degree to which John's past has truly immobilized him.

Had Simon Bent, Owen Meany's adaptor, utilized Adrian Hall's strategy in All the King's Men--making two nights of it, and not one--the work on stage at Playmakers would likely feel a lot less skeletal than it must to the book's readers. But who would want to spend two nights with a perpetually cringing Wheelwright, who collides with--but so rarely learns from-- his past?

As it stands, whole sections are removed or elided, and any number of points or symbols are altered or erased to jam a Dickensian novel into one night's entertainment.

The story that remains is engagingly told. It's good to see director David Hammond experiment with the surreal psychologized staging, and his influence on ensemble and individual performances. There's an element of the Napoleonic--and the disquieting presence of the true believer as well--in Jeff Gurner's interpretation of Owen, and rewarding vinegar in Joan Darling's piquant work as Grandma. Gregory Northrop gives integrity to stepfather Dan, while Ray Dooley and Tandy Cronyn are perfect as Owen Meany's gray, grim parents.

Matthew Floyd Miller has limited bandwidth here to explore the perpetually squeamish Wheelwright, but if the play never fully explores the narrator's character, the novel didn't either. Few of the many questions left unanswered in Irving's book find additional illumination here.

Ultimately, the Christianity Wheelwright swiftly proclaims from the book's--and the play's--first sentence never provides any visible measure of comfort to a character ever haunted by his past. By the end of play and novel, we sense a character reduced to belief, not elevated by it.

Similarly reduced is regional standout J. Chachula's librarian in Underneath the Lintel. Where earlier religious traditions have venerated thorns from crowns, splinters from crosses and bones of the saints, our addled Dutch librarian proffers a London Chinese laundry ticket from 1913, a recording made at the 1920 World's Fair, and a library book 113 years overdue as tokens of a belief found very late--the record of a man a god has tried to totally erase. Though Chachula's craft is evident under Mark Perry's direction, he's still about 25 years too young for the role of a man recklessly pursuing faith, a man ultimately in evident danger of embodying--becoming--the object of his belief.

But the force of desperate belief most clearly haunts the world of Handler. This is the world whose inhabitants believe they have the power to pray one another to death; the church whose inhabitants cheerfully, confidently yell, "I'm ready to go;" the choir who sings--to the high lonesome sound of that live bluegrass band--the lyrics, When I die, Hallelujah, by and by...

Canady Vance-Tanguis's Terri and Zach Thomas as Geordi are bewildered by the demanding god, who works his inscrutable will in their flesh, while David Dossey gives the latest in a series of memorable performances as spiritual leader, Brother Bob. Vance-Tanguis ricochets from cold malevolence to unnerving intimacy, before she ultimately learns and shares with the audience, where the real venom is in this world. It isn't in the snakes. The closeness of the Artspace puts us in the world of true belief. You won't be comfortable there. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings
OTHER NOTABLE OPENINGS:
Mame, N.C. Theatre; Shakespeare's R&J, StreetSigns Center, Swain Hall; Love's Labors Lost, Duke Theater Studies; Romeo & Juliet, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Page Auditorium, Duke; Tales of Horror and Delight, Peace College; Concert Dancers of Raleigh w/Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, Jones Auditorium, Meredith College; Harold and Maude, NRACT; Momma, I Want to Sing, NCCU Theater/Music; Pinocchio, Opera Express, Duke Gardens

REVIEWS:
**** All the King's Men, Part One: Hope of the Heart
**** 1/2 All the King's Men, Part Two: Willie Stark, Burning Coal Theater--A strong ensemble gets a real workout in theater legend Adrian Hall's sprawling, broad-canvas adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's famous novel. The result is an epic cyclorama of one Southern century--clearly the most ambitious, most imaginative and most accomplished work of the season to date, a must-see for regional theater-goers.

In the expositional preoccupations and tangled flashbacks-within-flashbacks of Part One, dissolute grad student Jack Burden, the novel's narrator, uncovers the true nature of History as he gradually unthreads the mystery of distant relative and 19th-century Abolitionist Cass Mastern. Then, in Part Two, Burden himself is caught up in the rise and fall of Willie Stark, a politician based on populist Louisiana governor Huey Long.

Stephen Roten makes Burden a likable cynic, while Dan Kenney embodies Stark's transformation from gubernatorial patsy to the savvy manipulator of a political machine. Singular support comes from Sarah Fallon as icy Annabelle Trice and acidic political lieutenant Sadie Burke; Carl Martin, who simply channels redneck political hack Tiny Duffy; and Mitch Butts, a standout as both Duncan Trice and Judge Irwin. But solid performances from Jeri Lynn Schulke, David Byron Hudson, David Klionsky, Lynne Marie Guilielmi, Greg Paul, Lynda Clark and Bob Barr give this world much of its authority.

Even so, we're left with compelling history, compelling theater, and clearly one of the season's high points.

***1/2 Julius Caesar, Shakespeare & Originals--In Tom Marriott's dark mirror held up to modern politics, Kenny Gannon's Caesar is a conceited wimp in a familiar flight suit, clearly propped up in power by unseen hands. His opponents are worse: gutless militarists who trade Armani and Secret Service shades for desert camo when they finally find the right spin to put on his assassination. The junta rises and falls in its control of striking images--no shortage of which are to be found in this production. Though the televised announcement of the assassination jump-cuts to inauthentically-staged "news footage" audience responses in bars, college dorms and senior centers, an operatic assassination scene mixes David Lynch with Sergio Leone. Derrick Ivey is dramatic, but rushed as Mark Anthony, while Jay O'Berski's enigmatic, soft-spoken Brutus reveals a moral soldier who becomes corrupted by the mechanisms of power.

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