THE BASICS: THE CHRISTIANS, a 2014 play by Lucas Hnath (say “nayth”), produced by the Chautauqua Theatre Company, directed by Taibi Magar, featuring Jared Jacobsen, organist, and The Chautauqua Motet Choir, is at the air conditioned Bratton Theater, July 8 & 9 at 7 p.m., July 10 at 2:15, July 11 & 12 at 4, closing Sunday July 14 at 2:15. Runtime: 90 minutes without intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Pastor Paul has grown his church from a humble storefront to a mega-church complex and now the financial debt has been paid off. It should be smooth sailing, but nothing has prepared the Pastor, nor his wife, his assistant, the board of elders, nor his congregation for his change of heart. Featuring live performances by the Chautauqua Motet Choir at every performance, THE CHRISTIANS travels a mine field of “hot topics” not just in religion, but in our contemporary society.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: I saw THE CHRISTIANS in April, 2018 at Buffalo’s Road Less Traveled Productions and that was one impressive performance, with each character completely inhabiting his or her role on a realistic “megachurch” set. So, if you too, saw that, you may be wondering “should I see it again?” And my answer is a resounding “yes!” Not because the Chautauqua production is better, but because it brings out different aspects of the characters, as we see them “blind-sided” by Pastor Paul’s revelation that there is no hell.
My memory of the Buffalo production is that it was more operatic, with intense anger and a sense of duplicity and betrayal, especially from the Pastor’s wife and the female congregant, and it was justifiable. At Chautauqua, however, the sense of hurt and loss sometimes precedes, always pervades, or occasionally follows that anger. This time around I felt both more sympathy and empathy to all of the characters.
So better? No, just different. I had a similar experience in “Better? No, different” last summer at Chautauqua’s Bratton Theater watching their excellent production of AN OCTOROON which the previous season had been wonderfully presented at The Shaw Festival. That play, concerning slavery in the ante-bellum South, hit me very differently watching it on American soil. Again, it was worth the trip.
So, here’s how the CTC operates. They combine more experienced, professional Equity actors, here including Jamison Jones as “Pastor,” Stori Ayers as “Wife,” and Malcolm Ingram as “Elder” along with younger members of “The Conservatory” in this case Ricardy Fabre as “Associate” and Madeline Seidman as “Congregant.” It’s a winning formula in that this is a “teaching” company and everything is discussed and very well thought out.
In THE CHRISTIANS script, Lucas Hnath lists four hymns to be sung at various moments, although he clearly explains that substitutions are allowed as long as they are “in the spirit” of his original choices. This production goes “over the top” in giving us Chautauqua’s resident organist, Jared Jacobsen, leading his “Chautauqua Motet Choir.” And SPOILER ALERT there are two aspects of this play that only a live choir could offer. First is the surprise that the “Congregant” (soulfully played by Madeline Seidman) was all along singing in the choir. The second is when the choir exits the choir loft, one by one by one.
Another difference with this current production is that Chautauqua conducts frequent “talk backs” after performances and ours was expertly handled by CTC Managing Director Sarah Clare Corporandy. I mention that because, if you’ve ever sat through painful talk-backs at some other theaters, you might be dis-inclined to stick around. I would be very inclined to stay, if I were you.
One audience member pointed out that the play looks at duality and unity. When everyone in the church believes in the duality of heaven versus hell, there is unity in the congregation. When Pastor Paul preaches that there is no duality, there is only heaven and everyone is invited, the church is divided, and the duality is now between Paul and everyone else.
I found this to be insightful, especially in our current “Us versus Them” mindset. Whatever social media “echo chamber” you happen to be in, you’ll find no tolerance for duality. If you post something “against” your group’s unity of thought, the sword of duality quickly chops you from that group. It was interesting to see that dynamic played out on the stage of the (did I mention air conditioned?) Bratton Theatre.
In sum, whatever your concerns for society are at the present time, I guarantee that you will see them echoed in one way or another at THE CHRISTIANS.
WHAT’S NEXT: The next “mainstage” play (i.e. with a two week-long run in the Bratton Theatre) is the comedy ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS, July 26 – August 11) an update of Goldoni’s “The Servant of Two Masters” now set in the Beatles era. Meanwhile, A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM continues, free, at various times and non-traditional locations, including, if you have a gate pass, Bestor Plaza on the Institution Grounds. And, as always, the “New Play Workshop” brings new American works on their way to Broadway, off-Broadway, or Regional premieres. HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN by E.M. Lewis (July 18-20) is a quirky romantic comedy; ON THE EXHALE (August 14-18) by Martin Zimmerman is a one-woman play with a new perspective on gun violence; and AGENT 355 (August 15-18) by Preston Max Allen tells the story of six Revolutionary War women as presented by an all-female punk rock band.
Photo credit the photo to Dave Munch/Chautauqua Institution
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!