Forget the Immersive Part and Focus on the Alluring Power of Church

Margaret Lewis, Cris Skelton, Brittny Bush and Alli Villines in Horse Head Theatre's production of Church
Margaret Lewis, Cris Skelton, Brittny Bush and Alli Villines in Horse Head Theatre's production of Church Photo by David Tong / GettaGo Photos / Culture Pilot.
click to enlarge Margaret Lewis, Cris Skelton, Brittny Bush and Alli Villines in Horse Head Theatre's production of Church - PHOTO BY DAVID TONG / GETTAGO PHOTOS / CULTURE PILOT.
Margaret Lewis, Cris Skelton, Brittny Bush and Alli Villines in Horse Head Theatre's production of Church
Photo by David Tong / GettaGo Photos / Culture Pilot.

Let’s be clear: Horse Head Theater Co.’s production of Church is actually two different shows. The first, billed as an immersive pre-show experience, is unnecessary, poorly conceived and bordering on insulting in its attempts at boosterism. The second, Young Jean Lee’s play, Church, is a beautifully performed, perplexing yet curious show that will leave audiences totally flummoxed as to how to react.

Both shows take place in Sam Houston Park, a Heritage Society location filled with historic houses and the church where the play itself is smartly performed. While Lee’s Church starts at 8 p.m., we’re instructed to arrive half an hour early for the pre-show experience. Name tags are given, and we’re told to write our names on them, think of someone we admire and write down our reason for admiration in a few short words on our tag. Spoiler alert – this thread was never picked up again.

After admiring the flamboyantly mohawked ducks that populate the park for a while and waiting for a crowd to gather, we notice two brightly smiling young women attending to chalk and a piece of sidewalk. They introduce themselves as Reverends and speaking to us in the soft tones of blissed-out, sincere Christian faith enthusiasts, and we’re encouraged to take up the chalk. Write something you want the universe to alleviate from your souls, they tell us. Several POTUS scrawls later, the Reverends offer up our scribbles to God and then wash it all away with a large bucket of water while hymn-singing. Sure, we think, this is getting us in the mood to hang out in the loving arms of believers for a bit.

But then the whole thing turns into a commercial. Not for the show, mind you, but for the park. Our group is split up and told to follow one of a couple of other Reverends, each as grinningly calm as the other, to take us on the tour of the grounds. Round we walk, listening to them tell us facts about the historic houses and the founding of the park in exhausting docent detail. This is what we rushed our dinners and showed up early for? Surely this has to be some kind of deal the producers cut with the park for allowing them exclusive use of the space on show evenings, right?

Many in the group gave up out of boredom and went back to sit on a bench, waiting for the real show to start. Some stuck it out for the grand finale, where participants got to play with a large parachute as they shouted out love to the universe. If this is Houston’s version of immersive theater, no wonder we get so precious little of it. Horse Head Theatre, which previously wowed us by setting a Moby Dick show in a self-built, multimedia, belly-of -the-whale structure, knows better than this, and it’s an unpleasant shock to see the company deliver such a paltry effort.

But then the church bells clang and off to the real play it is. A play that Lee wrote as an honest attempt to reconcile her lifelong struggle with Christianity. We’re not there to mock or revel in a belittling of religion. We’re there as the willing participants of an earnest and deeply religious congregation attending a new age church service.

The historic and intimate St. John’s Church, austere with its hard-backed pews and white-washed walls, is the perfect setting for this show. Immediately we feel hushed and calm as we take our seats and gaze upon the four new Reverends who will be leading us in prayer and sermon. That is, until the space goes black and we’re bombarded with Lee’s opening salvo.

In what can only be described as a fiery takedown of our faithless, selfish and meaningless lives, Reverend Cris (Cris Skelton) chastises us for our petty wants and needs. Whether we’re succeeding, coasting or quitting in life, we’re told that without God, nothing is truly safe or fulfilling and that love and true satisfaction only come with faith. Sitting in the dark, having our self-importance crushed, is kind of like being the meat in a tenderization process. Religious or not, we can’t help but be a little mashed up by the mallet.

The discomfort causes diverse audience reactions. Some laugh – perhaps out of nervousness or perhaps thinking the whole thing is a spoof. Some throw comments back to the reverend or talk among themselves. This kind of uncertainly about how to react to Lee’s experiment will continue throughout the show.

When the lights come up, things become decidedly more serene. Through song and prayer and storytelling, we’re led by the Reverends through our service. The stories they tell are mainly about their own journeys to faith. Reverend Margaret (Margaret Lewis) found her way when she realized the emptiness of her hard-partying ways. Reverend Cris came to the flock more organically. Reverend Brittny (Brittny Bush) lets formal prayer speak for her, while Reverend Alli (Alli Villines) spins a magical-realism tale alluding to horrific abuse.

No matter which story, Lee’s language is deliciously comforting, flowing like warm chocolate and leading us into a pool of sweet belief. And she is careful not to be overly didactic in her religious urgings. “I’m not telling you God exists,” says Reverend Cris. “Life is a mystery and no one really knows if God exists. But I believe God exists with an absolute certainty that comes from faith. And he is everything to me.” Lee even smartly allows Reverend Cris to poke fun at our calling God “he” as something we do in a patriarchal society to make everyone feel better.

So yeah, there are intentional laughs in this show. Thing is, we aren’t really sure where they’re meant to be. Should we laugh when Reverend Alli talks of eating tempura after being abused? Should we laugh at Reverend Margaret explaining how she, high on drugs, bloodily impaled a live chicken? Or at Reverend Cris during a stream-of-consciousness rant about mummies? Lee is toying with us, pleading earnestness and religious importance on the one hand while with the other daring us to laugh. Not to be derisive, but to work out her own (and, by extension, our) struggles with faith’s requirement to shed our irreverence and believe wholly.

One thing we can all agree upon is the angelic voices we are treated to when the female Reverends sing. It’s easy to feel divine power listening to Bush and Lewis back up the breathtaking Villines as she sings what we think is some kind of modern spiritual. But once again, Lee privately dares us to listen, knowing there is the potential for laughter. The tune, whose refrain tells us that “shaking in your bones is required,” is actually a sexy pop song by a New York indie band called On!air!library!

At the end of the one-hour service, when the church doors are flung open and we’re once again treated to song, what do we take away? Some audience members hustled away as fast as they could. Others milled about listening to the singers. Others walked pensively to their cars.

Lee’s show isn’t about immediate revelation or gratification. It’s trickier than that. Intentionally. After all, is there anything more complicated than unraveling fundamental Christianity’s powers to both lovingly envelop you while at the same time telling you that you aren’t inherently good enough? Is there anything more difficult than feeling the pull even if you don’t believe? Church won’t give you the answers, but it will make you realize the power of theater to screw with you for a bit.

Church continues through August 20 at The Heritage Society’s historic 1891 St. John Church, located in Sam Houston Park. For information, visit $24-$45.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman