Is there anything as polarizing as church? You either share the faith or you don’t. We may disagree about politics, food, tastes in entertainment, clothes, but none of those things are absolutes. And if we visit a friend’s family we already know we won’t belong in quite the same way as relatives do. But if we visit a friend’s place of worship, we either join in or become an outsider. That choice is evoked by Young Jean Lee’s Church, now playing for two more shows at The Yale Cabaret. The audience is the congregation and is preached to by the righteous Reverend José, and greeted, with handshakes and hugs, by three beneficently smiling female reverends, and listens to testimonials of how God got involved in the lives of the reverends, and witnesses hymns and dance.
The name of the church we never learn, nor could I say for certain what the tenets of belief are, beyond praise of Jesus and fear of the devil, though charismatic Reverend José (Matthew Gutschick) and his trio do make a few pronouncements that conjure a liberal faith—accepting all races and sexual persuasions and against anti-abortion, and not willing to insist on God’s gender. The main symptom of moral turpitude, it seems, is “masturbation-rage”—behavior that goes beyond ego-inflated navel-gazing to a more active love affair with the self, in denial of the need for God.
At first, Reverend José is just a voice out of the darkness, crying in a wilderness as it were, and his sermon is of the “tear down the ego” variety designed to inspire penitence. This is followed, in the bad cop/good cop rhythm of things, by the smiling, humble reverends greeting us, and then Reverend Kate (Kate Attwell) asks the congregation to suggest prayer requests—subjects to pray for—and members of the audience oblige.
At that point theater, to some extent, ends and ritual begins. Of course, the two have always been related, but when persons in the audience ask for prayers for relatives, or for world peace, or for their work, and we’re asked to pray silently, then, if some are really praying, who’s to say we aren’t in church? As Jesus said, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I.”
We don’t hear his name too much, mainly in the beginning and in a Christian rock song to which the reverends leap and dance and twirl, like a cross between bacchantes and cheerleaders, near the end of the piece. But the sense of worship as giving honor to God is never absent, not even in the somewhat surreal and rambling or bathetic or funny testimonials that the reverends deliver, all straight-faced and without any overt sense of parody. And what they describe—rising on a fountain of blood, a parable of the lantern-maker who wanted to be a sandal-maker, battles of good and bad angels, behaviorial addictions, a goat that eats from its master’s hand—are different only in degree not in kind from what one finds in any actual testimonial’s mangled version of scripture configured for the modern world. And Reverend Laura (Laura Gragtmans)’s prayer of thanks for a comfortably useful life at the close seems as sincere and beneficent as any speech to God should be.
What’s the point of the piece, ultimately? Final things, just as in any church, and how to live while we’re here. As Jim Morrison, one of the reverends of the church of rock, says, “No one here gets out alive.” Humbling, frightening, maybe gladdening as it may be, that’s the thought that makes life on earth a life “in church.” Hallelujah.
Church Written by Young Jean Lee Directed by the Ensemble, with Sunder Ganglani Yale Cabaret November 3-5, 2011