Wednesday, May 16, 2007

REMNANTS: Cast interview, Langley Times

Joseph’s story retold as Depression-era tale TWU, Pacific Theatre co-production explores anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Canadian context
by Brenda Anderson
Langley Times, May 11 2007

A classic Bible story has been transplanted 3,000 years and a continent away from its roots — but its message fits as well in the context of pre-Second World War Canada as it did in ancient Egypt.

Remnants (A Fable), retells the Old Testament story of Joseph, who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, only to rise — by virtue of his prophetic dreams — to a place of prominence in the Pharaoh’s palace.

Written by Canadian playwright Jason Sherman, the drama traces a young man’s journey from a Polish shtetl (town) to the work camps of Depression-era Canada.

But as the character Joseph rises to the position of advisor to Prime Minister Mackenzie King he is sent to turn back a boatload of European Jews seeking refuge from the growing threat of Hitler’s Germany, only to discover his own brothers among the refugees.

The production is a joint effort by Trinity Western University’s theatre department and Vancouver’s Pacific Theatre.

As an ‘Emerging Artist Showcase,’ the play features up-and-coming actors, including third-year theatre and religious studies student Shay McCleary, who will play the role of a man in the gender-blind production.

Although there are several women in the cast of 12, there are no female characters in the play.

“It’s so much fun playing a man. I find my suspenders quite snappy,” says McCleary with a laugh.

Raised to behave in a ladylike manner, McCleary is having a riot dressing up in men’s suits and sitting comfortably, knees apart, like a man.

Speaking over the phone during a break in rehearsal at the Vancouver theatre, McCleary explains she was lured to TWU, “through a weird series of events.”

In her home town of New York City, McCleary got to know a number of Vancouverites who were there teaching in the public school system.

And during a visit to her then-boyfriend who was from Vancouver, she fell in love with the area.

She became a Biblical studies major before discovering TWU’s drama department, which was filled with “talented people doing good work.”

Having grown up in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood in New York, McCleary was taken aback by what she discovered about her character during her research for Remnants.

“It was interesting for me, as a non-Canadian, playing Frederick C. Blair, the head of immigration in Canada during World War II,” she says.

“It was a bit of a history lesson.”

Blair’s (and Canada’s) stance on Jewish immigration prior to the outbreak of the Second World War and during the conflict itself is at the heart of Sherman’s play.

In the lead-up to war, as Jewish Europeans were frantically seeking a safe haven, Canada accepted between 4,000 and 5,000 immigrants from among that population.

During the war, the number dwindled to fewer than 500.

The U.S., by comparison, accepted more than 150,000 Jewish refugees and Mexico, between 15,000 and 20,000 over the same period.

McCleary, who has worked behind-the-scenes in a number of TWU theatre productions, and performed in the production As It Is In Heaven, welcomes the opportunity to join forces with up and coming actors from the Vancouver company.

A little concerned by the theatre’s unique layout at first, the actress is now having fun, she says, working in the space which features audience seating in front and behind the stage.

“I’ve heard it described as ‘theatre in the square’.

“I think we’ve always appreciated that we’ve had mild ties (with Pacific Theatre) because of (TWU instructor) Ron Reed,” she says of the collaboration.

“It’s a big deal to do a co-production for apprentices. It’s a great opportunity to gain work experience.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by fourth year TWU student Thomas Gage, who plays Joseph’s brother Simon in the production.

“I just wanted to be a part of it,” he says.

Gage describes his character as “a bit of a brute.

“He pushes Joseph around, but he has this amazing character arc at the end.”

Born in France to American parents, Gage lived in Nice until coming to Trinity Western.

He was looking for a school with a theatre department and had heard about the Langley university from friends.

“I’ve always had a passion for acting. I knew watching Star Wars as a kid it was what I wanted to do,” he says.

Gage did very little acting in France, but has performed in several productions since coming to Langley, including Taming of the Shrew and The Importance of Being Earnest.

In the fall, he will play the lead role of Thomas Mendip, a world-weary soldier seeking an end to it all, in The Lady’s Not For Burning.

Once his eductation is complete, Gage hopes to remain in the Lower Mainland to pursue a career in performing. Indie films appeal to him, he says, but ultimately, his goal is “to always be connected to theatre.

“To me, it’s the be-all, end-all.”


TWU/Pacific Theatre
Remnants (A Fable)
Date: May 17-June 9
Wednesday to Saturday
Time: 8 p.m.
Saturday matinees 2 p.m.
Admission: $16-$32
Venue: Pacific Theatre
1440 W. 12 Ave. Vancouver
Tickets: 604-731-5518

Thursday, May 10, 2007

EITHER OR, Washington D.C.

Either Or
Goldman Theater, Washington, D.C.; 214 seats; $45 top
Variety, May 8 2007

Oskar Schindler wasn't the only German insider who fought against Nazi atrocities. There was also Kurt Gerstein, an evangelical Christian and officer of the SS, who risked all to wage a private war against Hitler's gas chambers. Novelist Thomas Keneally, author of the book from which the film "Schindler's List" was adapted, has turned Gerstein's saga into his first play, "Either Or," debuting at D.C.'s Theater J. It's another absorbing story about one man's crusade against moral decay, but it doesn't quite translate into effective theater.

Gerstein was an early supporter of Hitler until the persecutions began. The religious idealist was even imprisoned for helping a Jewish member of his Christian youth group. He joined the army in hopes of influencing its direction, and ultimately helped introduce Zyklon B for use in concentration camps to delouse prisoners and kill other pests. But he watched in horror as the SS found other uses for the chemical. When his efforts to seek condemnation from the Vatican and others proved fruitless, Gerstein surrendered to the Allies, eager to report all. He died in a Paris prison in 1945 of an apparent suicide.

Keneally's play begins and ends in the prison with Gerstein hanging from a strip torn from his blanket. In between is an event-filled life story that emphasizes the gruesome Hobson's choice presented to him: what route does he pursue to poison the innocent victims of Germany's concentration camps -- the slow and painful death from carbon monoxide dispensed from a creaky engine, or the quick and more humane Zyklon B? Cruelty or efficiency?

The subject is an especially poignant one for 10-year-old Theater J, which specializes in works with Jewish themes. Although it has previously mounted plays about the Holocaust, this is its first direct examination of concentration camps, with menacing characters strutting in military uniforms, polished boots and armbands, smiling contentedly as the gas is released.

To help veteran novelist Keneally fashion a meaningful script from the strong material, the theater's creative staff has worked throughout the past year in workshops, readings and a one-month residency with the Australian author.

Keneally's story is revealed in mostly short scenes that build to a stirring climax, played out on Jim Kronzer's bare bones set. Director Daniel De Raey keeps the rope taut throughout as frustrations mount over the relentless evils on display.

Theater J's able cast is headed by Paul Morella as the dedicated evangelical. He is every bit the compassionate and earnest missionary valiantly combating acts of cruelty, culminating in his soul-rending eruption. Yet Keneally's script fails to instill the character with necessary depth. Morella's Gerstein registers variations of piety, angst, self righteousness and outrage, but the character isn't able to convey much more.

Other characters are even more one-dimensional, such as Meghan Grady's mentally unstable sister-in-law and Ralph Cosham's stern father, no fault of either performer. Better developed is John Dow's Pastor Niemoller, a dissident who offers perspective from his jail cell.

As might be expected from such a skilled writer, the flawed play occasionally soars in its perspectives of the "impossible dilemma" within this climate of hatred. "We did not know that malice could take such sculptural form," intones one character in an especially perceptive aside. Like Keneally's novel, "Schindler's Ark," the story of Kurt Gerstein needs to be told. One hopes it will ultimately find the right voice.

Set, Jim Kronzer; costumes, Misha Kachman; lighting, Martha Mountain; sound, Ryan Rumery. Opened, reviewed May 6, 2007. Runs through June 3. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Off-Broadway CHURCH

By Jason Zinoman
New York Times, May 9 2007

People of faith are often treated as either jokes or villains in the downtown theater scene, but that may be starting to change. Les Freres Corbusier was evenhanded in “Hell House,” and the Civilians, a company not known for being dogmatic, is working on a new docudrama about evangelicals.

Still, most seasoned audiences would expect that a drama by an experimental playwright at Performance Space 122 featuring four ministers discussing God’s glory is inviting smirks. But Young Jean Lee, who wrote and directed “Church,” isn’t joking — or if she is, the joke is on us. Her slyly subversive drama ambushes its audience with an earnest and surprisingly moving Christian church service that might be the most unlikely provocation produced in years.

With a cast of speakers, Ms. Lee, described in the press materials as a nonbelieving daughter of Korean-American evangelicals, portrays the kind of Christians secular downtown hipsters may find hard to dismiss: open-minded, liberal, tolerant.

“I don’t know that God exists any more than I know that God doesn’t exist,” says José (Greg Hildreth), a cerebral minister who mocks the arm-flailing brand of preacher sent up by the performance artist Reverend Billy. “The truth is that the world is a mystery.”

When I saw the show, the audience at first nervously chuckled, but gradually calmed and listened intently to the kind of pleas found in church. But the point here is not to convert so much as to confront. Ms. Lee has a talent for evocative and sometimes grotesque imagery, and on the attack she is at the height of her powers.

The play begins with the lights off, and José, from the back of the room, laying into the ticket-buyers for their petty concerns, their mediocrity and delusions of nonconformity. “You are incredibly similar to all the people sitting around you right now,” José says. “The vast majority of them are doomed to a life of disappointing mediocrity just like yours.”

“Church” is as much about the art of persuasion as it is about religion. It’s organized like an excellent and occasionally angry argument, starting by attacking the opponent’s ideas and finishing by proposing new ones. But who is Ms. Lee arguing with? The supposedly godless denizens of the theater world? Or is she confronting her own lack of faith?

Ms. Lee is most convincing when her characters stop talking and begin singing and dancing. The female ministers — wonderfully underplayed by Karinne Keithley, Weena Pauly and Katie Workum — show some joyous moves, and the play ends with a rousing spiritual.

On the way out, a theatergoer, perhaps still waiting for the teasing wink, shook her head and said, “That really freaked me out!”

“Church” continues through Saturday at Performance Space 122, 150 First Avenue, at Ninth Street, East Village; (212) 352-3101,

God in the East Village: CHURCH and ST JOAN OF THE STOCKYARDS

by Erik Piepenburg
New York Times, May 6 2007

PERFORMANCE SPACE 122, the East Village center known for telling heart-on-its-sleeve theater to take a hike, is undergoing a religious conversion of sorts, with two new shows on Christian themes. “Church,” written and directed by Young Jean Lee, is being performed until next Saturday. It’s an unorthodox contemporary worship service, complete with sermon, praise dancing and a gospel choir. The playwright and director Lear DeBessonet upends Brecht’s “St. Joan of the Stockyards” in a revival that begins June 15, transplanting the dark Joan of Arc story to 1920s Chicago, with bluegrass music by the singer Kelley McRae and handouts of warm bread.

Ms. Lee, 32, and Ms. DeBessonet, 26, sat with Erik Piepenburg to discuss how Christian fundamentalism influenced their plays; what it means to lose, gain and question faith; and how downtown theater mistreats the evangelical mind. Here are excerpts of their conversation; there is also an audio slideshow which features extended audio excerpts and photographs.

Growing Up Christian

LEAR DEBESSONET I’m from Baton Rouge and grew up in a Christianized culture. My family was nominally Christian but has actually become more involved in the church than they’ve ever been in my past. I had a very intense conversion experience when I was 10 and became passionately dedicated to Christianity. I had a bit of a Joan of Arc complex. I wasn’t Catholic, so I wasn’t planning to be a nun, but I certainly planned to dedicate my life to God. I never thought I would get married or have children. I felt I had a sort of calling. A lot of my work stems out of trying to sort through that as an adult.

YOUNG JEAN LEE My parents were converted to evangelical Christianity when they were living in Korea by an American missionary, and he helped bring them over to the United States. As soon as I was born, they both directed all of their energy into making me a Christian. I converted when I was 5, but by the time I was 8, I sort of didn’t believe anymore. I always hated church. I was not a religious person. I resisted and fought through my entire childhood and adolescence. When I went to college, I refused to go to church anymore, and there was a big battle between me and my parents. They realized they had to stop trying to force it on me.

MS. DEBESSONET I find it so ironic that Young, who has been critical for her whole life of this faith, is making a play that’s sincerely giving it a fair shot. I, who have cherished and protected this faith for most of my life, am making this show about someone losing their faith, that in some way denigrates it at the end, or calls into question the validity of it.

Fear and Motivation

MS. LEE The premise that all of my shows begin with is, I ask myself the question, “What is the last show in the world that you would ever want to make?” Then I force myself to make that show. My whole aesthetic is about fighting complacency. So if I make a show that goes against my instincts of what I want to do, that creates a very tense and complicated dynamic. For “Church” the last show in the world I would ever want to do was an evangelical Christian service that’s sincerely trying to convert the audience to Christianity, and that’s not ironic or a joke or making fun of Christianity at all. That just seemed like a real nightmare and a challenge for me, and it has been.

MS. DEBESSONET Usually my questions have to do with God in some way, because that’s what I think about, that’s what keeps me up in the middle of the night. This play, about the problematic relationship between Christianity and social justice and idealism, is really upsetting to me. I don’t know how to look at those questions honestly. I don’t know how to make an honest piece of work without entering into that crisis on some level.

On Evangelicals and Theater

MS. DEBESSONET Evangelical Christians in America right now can be very easy to make fun of. There’s a lot of good material there. But the problem is that it’s not helping the dialogue around these issues. What we really need is to be generating conversation about it, not just affirming people in what they already think. I think it’s very hard in the downtown theater world to address faith sincerely. Sometimes it’s perceived as being ironic, even if you’re meaning it to be sincere.

MS. LEE Most of what I’ve seen up until this point has been critiques and making fun. Christians are just not taken seriously at all, which is what my show came out of. But I have a feeling there’s going to be a big wave of theatrical stuff dealing with evangelical Christians over the next year.

MS. DEBESSONET I think the downtown artistic community is realizing we don’t really have the option of dismissing [evangelical Christianity] anymore. This is a force in our world. There are so many millions of people that do believe this, and for us not to even attempt to engage them or understand what’s driving them seems irresponsible artistically.