Red Tape Theatre’s production of Church and Pullman, WA, showing at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, is bizarre to say the least. These two very experimental, interpretative plays written by Young Jean Lee and directed by James Palmer are most apt for an audience in the mood for something in-your-face, personal, and introspective.
The first thing to note is that this is not your conventional play of watching someone else’s life being played out in front of you whilst you remove yourself from the plotline. Rather, in these two acts, the audience becomes an integral part of the play, in which the actors on stage are directly addressing the audience and attempting to inculcate their values and beliefs in the audience members themselves. I found this way of actors addressing audience members on real life, relevant issues to be profound, and I appreciated the way I was forced, in this small and intimate space, to think about my own life and my own values.
The actual space in which both acts were performed was pretty distinctive compared to most other theatrical shows, and made logical sense for the content of the two plays. Pullman, WA incisively asks the audience members to examine their own behavior and approach to life, and is done in what appears to be a classroom. We audience members, sat on wooden benches across from each other, and at several times throughout the act, the actors crept up into our faces and stomped around the benches to make their theories loud and clear. The chalkboard and overall shared space made the act apt for pedagogy and lecturing. For the second act Church, which was a mock church service, the audience was ushered into the neighboring room. This room happened to be a religious school classroom, and not coincidentally, for the Red Tape Theatre production was in a church building itself! As such, the mock preaching that was delivered to the audience was apt for the space we were situated in, though I believe an actual religious sanctuary with pews, an altar, and stain glass galore would have been the most ideal space (though perhaps a bit too creepy for a theater piece?!) Director James Palmer clearly made a good decision in ensuring that the ideas which were circulating within the two acts were done in an appropriate space for it to really impact audience members and make the play seem real and live.
I found the acting of the second play, Church to be superior to that of the first play, Pullman, WA, while I found the actual ideas to be more interesting in Pullman, WA. What I liked about Pullman, WA was the very relevant topic (at least to me) of how to lead a good life, be happy, and develop positive self-esteem. The play was essentially a series of philosophical lectures led by three actors. Each actor frequently wavered back and forth between a calm, controlled discussion on how to be happy to a more frenzied, spasmotic free flow of thoughts, giving each an almost schizophrenic persona. It was my understanding that while they traversed between more controlled thoughts to more absurd, incongruous thoughts, they were mimicking the way the human mind works--- each of us goes through moments of euphoria and stability to moments of depression and cynicism. As actor Amanda Reader wrote on the chalkboard “You are You” and that you goes through moments of safety to moments of suffering, as the actors both explained and also showed through their own behaviors. Thus I thought that the extreme wavering between emotions of the actors adequately reflected the extreme wavering we as individuals feel about ourselves. However, and perhaps because of these radical extremities, I sometimes found the acting to be overly exaggerated and almost fake. I didn’t always believe that the actors were going through these extremities but were rather portraying what these extremities might look like. In that way, I felt I was almost watching a parody or a sinister mocking and not someone actually succumbing themselves to these extremes. Additionally, at times I found Lee’s writing in Pullman, Wa to be on the brink of irrelevance due to the often leuwd content, referrals to unicorns and other oddities like “Santa carrying a sack of balls.” While for the most part I felt I connected to the piece and could find my thoughts and behaviors in tune with what the actors were saying, there were moments I could not really comprehend or connect with what was being said because it was so eccentrict and out-of-the-box.
In Church, I greatly enjoyed the acting but at times felt antsy being part of this mock church service. I personally felt I would have rather spent my time in a real church service rather than be in a theater where I was forced to really listen to the words of the preachers, think for myself, and actually make myself part of the service rather than simply watch from the sidelines. As such, I felt I had to exude a great amount of energy in order to stay in touch with the performance, which made me a bit exhausted at times. I found the acting, however, to be quite good---I actually believed all the actors were indeed preachers who showed real commitment to the words they were saying, each in a different way. Robert L. Oakes especially stood out to me. His deep charismatic voice really caught my attention and he constantly summoned me to look deeply and find God and Jesus within my heart.
What I really appreciated about this play was that there were no boundaries as to what could be done in the space; when free flow experiments could take place, they did. When the actor-preachers weren’t speaking the gospel, they were in the back at the kids table engaged in their crayons and their drawings. At another point, they surveyed the room and each personally shook our hands, welcoming us to their abode with warm smiles and a sincere air of hospitality. They even went around the room and openly asked audience members to offer a prayer to a loved one. Having audience members offer their condolences to loved ones definitely provoked a mild feeling of discomfort in me, on two levels 1) that our prayers were being summoned by actors, and 2) that they were being shared in a fake church service. Though I think this particular part of the service was essential in furthering the purpose of the piece and in pushing boundaries the piece was meant to push. I even almost felt impelled to call out a name, but the Jew in me deemed it better to lay low. Overall, despite my personal level of discomfort, I appreciated the way this play sought to defy boundaries and sought to remove the comfort we often feel in the theater. I almost felt like we, the audience members, became guinea pigs as we were preached to and summoned to actively take part in this service and think about what was being said. But again, I ultimately would have rather actually partaken in a church service than relive it in a theater.
Overall, I appreciated the way both plays directly addressed audience members and sought to connect the words of the plays with the way we as humans think and behave. Both acts, though very different in themselves, defied typical boundaries that exist in the theater between the actors and audience and in doing so challenged my notions of what it means to go see a play. While I found the execution of the words that Lee wrote to be well thought out and well done, I ultimately struggled most with the actual writing of both plays and felt that they required far too much reading-between-the lines for my mind to handle.
Show dates and times:
Regular Run Thurs-Sat at 8:00, Sun at 3:00
Industry Night – 2/14 at 8pm
Additional Performances: 2/19, 2/26, and 3/5 at 3pm
Tickets $25 available at www.redtapetheatre.org or at the box office
Published on Dec 31, 1969