LUCAS HNATH’S BATTLE OF WORDS, BELIEFS AND DEPTH BRING ‘THE CHRISTIANS’ AN AMERICAN MYSTERY OF FAITH
Climb the steps or take the elevator to the San Francisco Playhouse's 2nd floor and you enter a full scale church and the magnificent voices of a sixteen member choir rise in song. Lucas Hnath’s powerful THE CHRISTIANS is now at the Altar of the SFPH stage through March 11th. The service begins before the lights dim for the gathered crowd. The choir begins with "Hold to God's Unchanging Hand," and they are a spirit that moves us to praise and joy. The choir becomes the true chorus to this evening in church. Director Bill English says “The Christians can easily be called “The Jews” or “The Muslims” or “The Humans” or better yet “The Americans” because It's a story which resonates so profoundly in the time we live in right now where we have two groups of people that are torn apart, people with great passions, with great desire to serve, but who just can not agree on anything.”
Pastor Paul played by the spellbinding, Anthony Fusco, and his wife, Elizabeth, played by the poignant Stephanie Prentice parade into the room, shaking hands with their congregation including you and me, and other members of the audience. Before mounting the altar, which is also exceedingly authentic as designed by director Bill English, the church is a grand presbytery stage design. English has cast an excellent company of five actors to take us through this 21st Century American 90 minute service. Featuring the choir of the 1st Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco with their insightful energetic church classics.
Appealing Lance Gardner is the Associate Pastor Joshua and Warren David Keith is elder Jay, Chair of the Church Council who are on the altar listening to the sermon. They sit on comfortable diocese church high back chairs; behind them, a complex railing with a reed of Egypt and Palestine in the design to subtext bible conflict. The reeds also appear in the design of the podium we see on the church's stage. The altar is garned with microphones; this is a big church, and this service we listen too is on a big day for this congregation. It is the day when the leaders of this family Church can announce that they have paid off their loan, and are free of debt. In his sermon Pastor Paul has been enlightened, through his prayer and encounter with God, and proclaims there is no Satan, and no Hell. Most important the grace of Jesus has created a spot in Heaven for everyone.
The Pastor’s sermon upsets Pastor Joshua, and the two of them have a battle of bible words over the traditional versus the New Testament, an argument that Paul dominates and easily wins. Playwright, Lucas Hnath, says “The whole play is a kind of sermon - Sometimes it’s a literal sermon. Sometimes it’s made up of scenes that use the formal elements of a sermon. And as such, even the most private scene has a kind of declamatory, performative, sing-songy quality.” All of the action, even when Paul and Elizabeth are in bed together, is on the altar. The actors speak into the hand microphones, which gives the service that church TV Pat Robertson feel. Director English creates real human beings, with confidence and sentiment, yet the line is set for conflict.
Fusco brings a sense of pained passion to Pastor Paul, as he makes a point to tell a tragic human story of a man who burned to death. The result, we depend on our feelings to help us form our views. “I believe what I believe because I know it is true, but why do I know it’s true? it’s a feeling,” says Pastor Paul. “And where did that feeling come from. God put it there, but how do I know it’s God that put it there, I know it’s God because I believe God is there, but how do I know God is there?” A choir member believes that he could be channeling God’s love.
The split in church philosophy breaks the group and Pastor Joshua, feels you cannot change the tradition without causing conflict within the church. Member Elizabeth, who teaches Sunday school to the youth of the congregation, is on the fence to support her husband or stay traditional. The event all is staged as a sermon of emotions and the choir chimes in as in any great Greek tragedy. Lucas Hnath keeps us thinking about the history of Christian beliefs that have always been questioned.
The sermon and prayer is about the tradition of the classic all loving God. Local favorite, Anthony Fusco is inspiring in the role of the challenging pastor. Strident Lance Gardner is sympathetically perfect as Joshua, and Millie Brooks gives an authentic take as the questioning churchgoer, Jenny Warren. Music Director, Tania Johnson, Louis Lagalante and keyboardist, Mark Summer, bring the stand out choir to full power as they fill the Playhouse theatre with a wonderful choral vocals. Sound and projections are truly dramatic designed by the award winning Theodore J.H. Hulsker. The monitors built into the church's walls set the mood of the Pastors sermon and bring the choir to life.
Costume Designer Tatjana Jessee keeps the company in conservative tones, skirts for the women and dapper sunday wear for the men, the choir is in appropriate sky blue robes. Michael Oesch’s deep lighting design dips to cool colors as the mood changes then is bright and “christian” as the spirits rise and fall. Bibles, and church essentials are all perfect and well crafted by prop master Jacquelyn Scott. English’s sets are always outstanding and this interior of this church becomes a character in this religious war on words and passion.
The Christians presents the connection between faith and belief and how we come to hold onto it or deal with change. The Christians could be any one of us dealing with the struggle and challenges of where we stand or fear to explore. This is an important play and the San Francisco Playhouse and Bill English have created a thought provoking evening of theatre. Come prepared to show some faith or challenge everything we think we know. Coming up next is Michael Frayn's Noises Off opening March 21 and running through May 13.
San Francisco Playhouse Presents
By Lucas Hnath, Directed by Bill English
Through March 11, 2017
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco,
2nd floor of the Kensington Park Hotel.
Running time 90 min no intermission
For tickets call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.
Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/events/1116423618436087/
*Interview with Lucas Hnath by Tim Treanor.for DC Theatre Scene.
Photos by Jessica Palopoli
THE CHRISTIANS Video Clip
Bill English, director of The Christians, describes why this play is a reflection of America today. Watch the video and find out more about San Francisco Playhouse's edgiest play of the season.