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EMAV Review: "Hallelujah," for The Christians at Cockroach Theatre Co.

★★★☆☆ - Satisfying

Twenty years ago, Pastor Paul's church was nothing more than a modest storefront. As his congregation grew, they eventually moved into a gymnasium. Now he presides over a congregation of thousands, in a building large enough to include classrooms for Sunday School, a coffee shop in the lobby, and a baptismal font as big as a swimming pool.

All “megachurch” services share one thing in common: They are entertaining. Most use varying degrees of video, contemporary music and drama in their services. One megachurch stated that its goal is to have its services “feel like a concert” -- to whip people into an emotional frenzy. Music is certainly an effective device for accomplishing this goal.

This is certainly true as the audience arrives at Art Square Theatre in the heart of downtown's 18b Arts District. Cockroach Theatre has transformed the intimate performance space into the megachurch that serves as the setting for Lucas Hnath’s soul-searching drama, The Christians. Today’s services coincide with a day of celebration -- the debt for the new building has finally been paid off after 10 years.

The musical litergy includes Leonard Cohen’s popular song, "Hallelujah," which reinforces that word of praise in the Christian tradition – a synonym for "Praise the Lord," rather than a prompting to action.

A diverse and vocally capable chorus, backed up by just a keyboard and guitar, welcome us into the congregation and immediately invite us to join in the festivities. Not unlike karaoke, we soon realize that the words of popular songs are being projected on two video screens and we, too, are singing along and clapping to the beat.

Carry on my wayward son,

For there'll be peace when you are done.

Lay your weary head to rest,

Don't you cry no more.

At a point where everyone in the house has joined in, the pastor and other senior members of the congregation arrive and take their seats, unaware that Pastor Paul (convincingly portrayed by Darren Weller) is about to preach a sermon that will shake the foundations of his church's belief.

Alissa Wilkinson, Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City summarizes it well:

“Pastor Paul approaches the pulpit… to reveal that the congregation will be taking a new direction: no longer will they believe in the existence of hell. Associate Pastor Joshua takes issue with this theological turn. The two men quote Scripture in the ensuing argument, which culminates in Joshua leaving the church and taking with him the parishioners who don’t approve of the change either. Then the fallout starts.”

The Church here is the backdrop for an earnest exploration of what a church schism is like, who the people are who cause it, and (most importantly) the pain that comes when a family splits -- whether that family is nuclear or ecclesiastical.

The playwright himself says that, “While the plot of The Christians is far from ambiguous, the play is a series of contradictory arguments. No single argument 'wins.'" He goes on to add that, “A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see. A place where the invisible is -- at least for a moment -- made visible. The theatre can be that too.”

The playwright does not discuss his own beliefs or practices, believing that audiences need to decide for themselves how to respond to a play that depicts a typical American megachurch fractured by a dispute over salvation and damnation. He leaves it up to theatergoers to ponder whether "The Christians" is fundamentally sympathetic to, or critical of, the kind of community it depicts.

The Cockroach Theatre Company creative team has assembled a strong acting ensemble which effectively presents the intricate and thorny interactions among these believers, as they attempt to dissect the words of The Bible and to share questions about their deep-rooted faith. This dramatic piece plants the audience squarely in the thick of the battle.

In the very capable hands of director Mindy Woodhead, this talented company bobs and weaves and counterpunches most effectively throughout their intellectual sparring. The opening bout is between Associate Pastor Joshua (nicely underplayed by Joe Basso) and Pastor Paul (confidently portrayed by Darren Weller). They no longer agree on “The Words” (Satan and Hell) and Pastor Paul stands aside as a small group follows Joshua and leaves the church.

The main event is less about “The Words” than about the timing of Pastor Paul’s sermon -- coming only after the church is relieved of its debt. Jenny (admirably characterized by Sabrina Cofield) delivers the knockout punch by raising the question of whether she can ever again “trust” Pastor Paul and his motivations -- and, therefore, believe in him and everything for which he stands.

Church Elder Jay was read by Gary Lunn, whose scene with Pastor Paul very honestly and convincingly presented the delicate balance between “The Board” (and its fiduciary responsibilities, “with their necks on the line”) and The Pastor (the CEO and very public face of the church across the community).

Finally, Elizabeth, Pastor Paul’s wife (lovingly performed by Gigi Guizado), finds herself caught up in the dynamics of both the nuclear and ecclesiastical family. She feels alone and wonders if she’s “Just a preacher’s wife? Is it somehow her failure, her guilt”? She is the embodiment of the human and real consequences of choices based in spirituality. Her partnership with Pastor Paul delves into many aspects of personal trust and the family business, and leaves the audience with their unresolved relationship as the lights dim.

The Production Team did a wonderful job keeping these elements simple and supportive of the play: Alexia Hsin, scenic design; Liz Klein, lighting; Joey Jevne, sound, and Mallory Ward, costumes.

"Hallelujah," for this Satisfying three-star production of The Christians, by Lucas Hnath, by Cockroach Theatre Company, at the Art Square Theatre through June 4th.

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