BWW Review: The Wilbury Theatre Group Takes Us To CHURCH
There is nothing quite like a powerfully delivered sermon. Even non-believers may find themselves getting chills in the presence of impassioned oratory, regardless of the subject matter. That seems to be a central point of Young Jean Lee's CHURCH, currently playing at The Wilbury Theatre Group. Similar to last year's production of Lee's Straight White Men, she again toys with typical expectations, this time of religious services, and manages to be somewhat heartwarming while also being confounding. But lack of solid direction and movement leaves the production feeling much longer than it is, despite an exceptionally talented cast.
The narrative of the play follows a traditional sermon structure. It begins by reminding us all that we are sinners with a voice from off-stage berating the cast (and audience) for their flaws, mediocrity and acceptance of anything less than the best. Then we hear prayer requests from the audience and testimonials from the cast followed by a rousing sermon by Phoenyx Williams as Rev. Jose. There are several high energy songs, and the audience is encouraged to sing (lyric sheet included with the program) and clap along.
The songs are by far the best part of this production and the fantastic cast and live musicians harmonize flawlessly and keep the energy incredibly high during these toe-tapping moments. It's also wonderful to be able to report that all of the sound mixing issues that plagued Wilbury in their old space are completely eradicated in their new home at 40 Sonoma Court. The acoustics are absolutely perfect for an intimate theatre, and even sitting right next to the musicians didn't preclude hearing every word of every song. This bodes very well for the spring 2018 production of Pirates of Penzance.
Despite the highs of the musical performances, the bulk of the play does tend to drag on a bit. Certainly Phoenyx Williams is a charismatic performer worthy of his own megachurch, but the bulk of the play is just him preaching from the pulpit on stage. The lack of movement, and a script that seems deliberately nonsensical at times make it hard to not let one's mind wander.
The director's note in the program, and the addition of song lyrics for the audience suggest that this is supposed to be an immersive and participatory experience. Occasionally the actors mingle a bit with the audience, but for the bulk of the play, the rest of the cast are seated behind the stage, which makes their reactions seem more removed. It's challenging to get an audience to participate, but the hope seems to have been that people would be compelled to, and many were not quite taken to that point. This is certainly not the fault of the cast, who are some of the most talented The Wilbury has, including Jason Quinn, Sarah Leach and Rae Mancini; but rather what feels like a decision to try to have it both ways with audience participation, which left a lot of us unsure of our role.
As always, Wilbury brings the unexpected and fresh to the stage, but sometimes that works better than others. This is an appropriate play for the Christmas season, as it ultimately reminds us to be thankful for the blessings in our lives, which is a very nice way to end a challenging year. It's frustrating that that message is a bit buried and elusive, but they still get a solid "church clap" for trying.
Photo: Milly Massey in CHURCH at The Wilbury Theatre Group; photo by Erin X. Smithers.