Most plays about religion are really about politics or psychopathology. In Saint Joan, Agnes of God, and Doubt, for instance, it’s not dogma that gets dramatized — how could it be? Theology is glacial. Instead, we are shown real-world consequences of intense belief, including damage done to innocent bystanders. But in his extraordinary new play The Christians at Playwrights Horizons, Lucas Hnath grapples directly with dogma itself. There’s no pedophilia, no stigmata, no financial shenanigans with the collection plate; the fate of France is not involved. There’s just a question for a congregation to answer: How do we change and yet remain faithful?
The question arises when Pastor Paul, the leader of a middle-American megachurch that’s just finished paying off the debt on its new building, announces a new policy to go with it: “We are no longer a congregation that believes in Hell.” In the 20-minute sermon that opens the show (after a praise-the-Lord choir sings two introductory numbers), Paul explains how he came to this decision largely through empathy. If non-Christians sacrifice and suffer for their beliefs, or even for their nonbeliefs, just as Christians do, who is he to consign them to an eternity of torment based on the possible mistranslation of a few ancient words? And how can he in good conscience continue to preach, in a church based on God’s love, a view of others that looks a lot like contempt?
We are conditioned to meet stage clergy with suspicion, if not of their sincerity then of their intelligence. Hnath, who writes in a program note that, when he was younger, he was “supposed to be a preacher,” instead gives us, in Paul, an evangelical character whose faith is generous and complicated. After the sermon, the play gracefully shifts gears, becoming a series of testimonies and theological arguments so his faith can be tested, as much by the fallout from his announcement as on its own terms. Joshua, the associate pastor, finds the new teaching schismatic, then initiates a schism. Jay, a church elder, worries that the loss of members over the controversy will endanger the congregation’s newfound financial stability. Jenny, a member of the choir, is baffled by the questions that arise when eternal punishment no longer exists as a brake on behavior; if there’s no hell, is Hitler in heaven? (Apparently, yes.) The final test, making the pastor look less like a Paul than a Job, comes from his wife, Elizabeth, who for the first 60 minutes of the 90-minute play has smiled and nodded and not said a word. It turns out that she is passionately engaged in her own interpretation of scripture, which does not match her husband’s.
If this suggests that The Christians is, as drama, totally abstract, well, no; it’s just more abstract than most treatments of religion dare to be in godless New York. (Hnath is from Florida.) Both in the script and in the strange, superb direction by Les Waters, the distancing elements are amped up — literally; the characters speak almost all of their dialogue into microphones, “just the way pastors do.” Even scenes that take place outside the church are staged within it, a huge backlit cross and that choir in attendance. The result is a kind of “public service”: an exurban passion play. The surprise is the passion part; through some trick of perspective, and excellent acting, the abstractions enhance rather than cancel the emotion. As Paul, Andrew Garman walks a difficult line perfectly: oily and theatrical enough to have gotten the job, but honest and self-doubting enough to risk losing it. The supporting actors, especially Emily Donahoe as Jenny and Linda Powell as Elizabeth, bring similar dignity to roles that, treated less carefully, might too easily be laughed off. Of course, any character on an Off Broadway stage who believes in hell is in danger of that; Hnath dares us to see anti-religious prejudice as just another form of faith, equally founded in mere feeling, and equally difficult to dislodge.
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Euripides has a God problem, too. His plays are about the gravest failings of humans, but the humans are constantly being manipulated by immortals. The story of Iphigenia in Aulis, his final work, from around 406 B.C., is typical: The Greek fleet, becalmed in the title port, cannot get on with the business of sacking Troy until the slighted goddess Artemis is appeased. (She’s miffed because the Greek leader Agamemnon slayed one of her sacred stags.) What she demands as recompense is devastating: the sacrifice of Iphigenia, Agamemnon’s daughter by Clytemnestra. A conflict between personal attachment and political responsibility is thus established, one with huge significance historically (the Trojan War) and enduring relevance as well. But what are moderns to make of a conflict, however human and relevant, that is framed entirely by supernatural forces? Do we equate those forces with the general concept of fate? Do we read them as metaphors for individual psychology? (Maybe Artemis represents a kind of overtuned superego, punishing Agamemnon for his pride and impulsiveness.) One way or another, a production needs to take a stance that grounds the 2,400-year-old play for an audience that may not believe in one god, let alone hundreds.
Rachel Chavkin’s staging of Iphigenia, the centerpiece of Classic Stage Company’s Greek Festival, ducks the question. The gods are treated, amusingly enough, as demanding kinfolk, interfering but distant. The animating force of the conflict is thus the military itself, a mortal mob yet godlike in its insatiable hunger for war at any cost. This is a viable interpretation but not, unfortunately, one the text does much to dramatize. Instead, Chavkin offers marvelous spectacle as cover. The chorus of “foreign women” is rendered as a seven-person, pangender song-and-dance troupe in parti-colored Chiquita drag, not because that look has ties to an interpretive concept (this is not Iphigenia in Rio) but because, being the furthest thing from what you’d expect, it pops with the most intense vividness. The twirling, stomping, hysterical choreography by Sonya Tayeh and the haunting, ululating music by the Bengsons marvelously sustain and heighten the drama that otherwise seems intermittent.
Chavkin, who pulled a similar sleight-of-hand as director of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, has lots of nifty ideas; it’s just that not all of them pay off. The trick of having the three main actors play all seven speaking roles, for instance, never seems more than expedient, and forces unlikely attempts at differentiation. Rob Campbell, a moving and precise Agamemnon, offers a Bronx goombah of an Achilles. Amber Gray, visibly pregnant, doubles as both macho Menelaus and long-suffering Clytemnestra (but whose baby is it?); Kristen Sieh is not only Iphigenia but a servant and a herald, both rendered comically, as if Chavkin felt the need to reassure us that we will be entertained before being harrowed. Happily, most of the froufrou burns off as we get closer to the glowing core of the tragedy. Normandy Sherwood’s outlandish costumes — Iphigenia at first appears in a cabbage-y headdress that’s less Euripides than it is Dr. Seuss — gradually shed tiers and grow more dignified. And the sometimes spiky diction of the “transadaptation” by Anne Washburn (there are odd references to dynamite and “a metric tonnage of ships”) also takes on a more classic profile.
Once all these adjustments come together, the production recovers from its evasions and is able to speak for itself, if not about gods then the monsters who are men.
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Hamlet, written some two millennia after Iphigenia in Aulis, is one of the few plays since the Greeks to permeate our culture so fully. It may have permeated Michael Laurence, an actor and playwright, a little too fully. On the evidence of his Hamlet in Bed, now at the Rattlestick, he is a man obsessed. It’s not just that Hamlet offers a handsome actor a great role; at 39, Laurence is in any case a bit long in the tooth, as the play puts it, for the 20-ish Dane. No, it’s the Oedipal drama of the prince and his parentage that most interests the author. It turns out that Laurence — or the version of himself he puts onstage as a character called Michael — was abandoned as a baby by his birth mother. Through a series of coincidences involving a diary, he comes to believe that he has identified her as a onetime actress who, while playing Ophelia in a notable New York production some 40 years earlier, became pregnant by her Hamlet. Naturally, Michael drags her out of a drunken semi-retirement to play Gertrude in his own production, which may or may not exist.
Hamlet in Bed is clever and creepy, and Laurence makes a charismatic nutjob. (Annette O’Toole is also strong as the could-be mother.) The portions of narration written in verse are surprisingly solid, not melting in the presence of the actual Shakespeare aptly shot through the play. But the fascination of the cross-references pretty quickly pales, perhaps especially in Lisa Peterson’s stylishly noir production, leaving you with nothing but the obsession to hang on to. That’s insufficient and, at the same time, a bit much, falsely equating a mother who rightly feels she can’t take care of her child with a mother who rewards her brother-in-law for killing her husband by taking him into her “enseamed bed.” Hamlet deserves a play; I’m not sure “Michael” does. Even at only 90 minutes I began to feel I was trapped in someone’s scream-therapy session, except with doublets. Maybe it should have been 50 minutes instead.
The Christians is at Playwrights Horizons through October 11.
Iphigenia in Aulis is at Classic Stage Company through September 27.
Hamlet in Bed is at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater through October 25.