’Church’: a religious experiment

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When the Yale Cabaret’s performance of “Church” started, right away, the four actors spoke to me.

Literally — they came to my seat in the audience, started speaking with me and thanked me for coming to the show. There is no fourth wall separating the play-goers from the play in this weekend’s “Church” by Young Jean Lee, because the four actors spend the “service” either talking with the audience or delivering testimonials and sermons to the makeshift congregation. The audience members become part of the play in this sense, making “Church” less of a performance and more of an experience, singing and dancing included. The resulting effect comes as a surprise, but not an unpleasant one, and the audience soon becomes used to the intimacy.

Before the cast introduces themselves, the house lights turn off and Reverend José (Matthew Gutschick DRA ’12) delivers a sermon from offstage to the darkened theater. His voice fills the empty space as he opens with an anecdote about a man who spends every day worrying about different parts of his life.

“This is you,” he tells the audience, before launching into a sermon you don’t need to be religious to identify with. Gutschick gives a compelling and believable performance as Reverend José. The role seems to come naturally to him; everything from his hand gestures to his eye contact with the audience members increases the feeling of being at an actual church service. The conviction in Gutschick’s voice leaves the audience with the impression that he believes every word he preaches.

Gutschick is joined by three female reverends: Reverend Laura (Laura Gragtmans DRA ’12), Reverend Kate (Kate Attwell DRA ’13) and an uncredited actress as the third reverend. The three actresses each bring their own genuineness to the roles, and the audience feels as if they get to know the actual people. The naming of the characters after the actresses blurs the line between reality and the play even more.

After watching this perormance of “Church,” it makes sense that playwright Young Jean Lee works mostly with experimental theater. The sermons become abstract at times, and transitions from one speaker to the next are rarely logical. For example, after the Reverend walks out of the theater unexpectedly, the three female reverends somewhat randomly begin to sing. But perhaps the progression isn’t meant to be dissected: as a whole the play doesn’t seem to require explanation to be appreciated. In fact, many of the testimonials — which range in material from ex-boyfriends to Satan — deal with similar themes about leading a meaningful life.

While the setting is spare, with just two benches and a music stand, gospel music fills the theater at different points during the play. The three female reverends even sing a folk-like a cappella piece themselves, richly-led by Gragtmans. Perhaps a highlight is the dance piece they perform after, full of leaping and reckless twirling across the stage. Reverend José, usually reserved in his movement, joins in the choreographed routine at the end, imbuing the scene with levity.

Yale Cabaret’s performance of “Church” manages to be both a fun and serious play about religion. While the religion may not leave you feeling uplifted, the full choir at the end certainly will.

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