Crowded Fire's 'Church' is Daring, then Fun

So I guess I should tell you to go to Church, Crowded Fire’s excellent production of Young Jean Lee’s 2007 meta-theatrical comic stab at—Faith? Charlatans? Joy? Putting on a show?

Lee’s a tricky trickster. Her Straight White Men played last summer at MTC and turned the aforementioned white men into puppets. The Shipment a couple of seasons ago, also with Crowded Fire, flipped conventional perceptions of race upside down and inside, ending with a mean little joke. In a host of other plays she has confounded expectations of what a play might be, or maybe, better put, what an audience might experience during a play.

Church begins in the dark, which is always a great place to start an evening at the theater or a religious service. Darkness creates a sense of equality. It disrupts our sense of the world—all the psychic muck that we bring to every occasion—and, best of all, calms us down. When the soothing voice of Reverend José (a brilliant and assured Lawrence Radecker) pierces the Potrero Stage, we’re ready.

You might ask, “Ready for what?” And I would say for contemplating your soul, which is more or less what happens during the Reverend’s opening speech. His initial parable ends with the injunction to “open your eyes!” and the effect is so complete that Lee’s clever pun doesn’t feel smart or ironic. Rather, you feel as if someone has bothered to speak to you, has taken the time to address your ills, fears and the times in which we live.

This is all to the good and when the lights finally bathe Randy Wong-Westbrooke’s simple, rectangular, wooden set in a warm church-y wash, the effect is caring and challenging—there are three other smiling Reverends on stage (Jordan, Nkechi, and Alison, as per Lee’s instructions, named after the actresses who play them).

The whole effect is hypnotizing. Lee places us in a position where we, the jaded non-churchgoing audiences of San Francisco and New York, wish for some aspect of a religious service. What’s nice is that she reminds us that with that wish comes responsibilities, morals, and an acceptance that we aren’t the center of the world.

The nagging sense that we are less than what we might hope is what makes Reverend Jose’s second sermon, delivered in the full glow of the light, so potent:

We are a culture obsessed with willpower. We believe that with enough determination and positive thinking, we can control our futures. But as anyone who has ever lived through real tragedy knows, our world is a cruel and senseless one, and without God we are completely at its mercy.

That’s a damning critique of the theatergoing class and, better yet, damning without moral censure or threats of hell fire. I won’t speak for anyone else, but I felt the sting of Lee’s fictional Reverend José.

The Devil’s in the Details

So I guess it’s that time in the review to talk about Young Jean Lee’s many talents and how those talents have sometimes led her astray, and do so in Church. Though what follows is critical of Lee and the play, don’t pay any attention to me: go anyway.

In every Lee profile, some version of this basic origin story is recounted: She’s suffering from writer’s block in Mac Wellman’s MFA program at Brooklyn College and he tells her, “Stop trying to be cool. Write something that you hate.” Chastened and desperate, she writes a play about the romantic poets, The Appeal, and she’s off.

Wellman’s advice was sharp and individual. Lee has a talent for bad drama; sometimes the more debased the better. She’s done drawing room comedy (The Shipment); male weepies (Straight White Males); ethnic coming-of-age tales (Songs of the Dragons flying to Heaven); and even Shakespeare (Lear). She often sees the weaknesses in a particular style or genre and gives it a twist that simultaneously sends it up and makes it moving—that’s the best of Church.

Sometimes, though, Lee’s work can drift towards easy parody, though quite skillfully done. As Church progresses what Reverend José and his three fellow Reverends say becomes more and more ridiculous. That frees us of the dilemma of feeling drawn to the religious service before us, while at the same time having to accept the limits that real belief or faith demands.

Instead of holding to that tricky emotional balance, about half way through the play Lee just goes for the laughs and what’s worse absurd ones at that. The following is a terrific example: sure, it’s a riot, but it’s also a diminishing of the playwright’s initial impulses:

And you cling to your alcohol and your drugs and your caffeine like a baby pacifier, but in reality you are all mummies and not babies at all. You are grown, adult mummies and you live in a mummy cave.

And another thing I forgot to tell you is that Satan is a mummy.

We’re on solid, cultural ground here—an experimental playwright making fun of an evangelist preacher—and it’s too easy. We can all marvel at her gifts—the casually absurd language, the theatrical invention, the precise way scenes are set one after the other—while wanting much, much more.

Lee was on to something beautiful and terrifying and lets us go to merely feel good. Why would anyone with such skill and imagination ever want to do that? Why join the club of cool, when a much more difficult salvation is possible, where we learn to love what we hate.

Please write in if you disagree. What don’t I understand? Is entertainment enough?

‘Church’ runs through October 6 at the Potrero Playhouse in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.