There has always been a compelling correspondence between religious ceremony and theatrical performance.
Whether it’s the “ritual theory” advanced by Victorian classical scholars that ancient Greek theater developed from Athenian religious drama, or the affinities between lavish Broadway musical spectacle and the pomp and circumstance of, say, a Roman Catholic midnight mass, it can hardly be denied that stage shows and formal Christian worship both revolve around the theatrically purposed performance of a text in front of an audience.
Part of what’s so exciting about Captain of the Bible Quiz Team, the soberly engaging new play by Tom Jacobson that opened at Westwood’s Lutheran Church of the Master over the weekend (and now moves to Lutheran churches in Hollywood and NoHo) is what happens when a playwright of Jacobson’s caliber acknowledges that relationship. The immersive drama uses both the logic and the liturgy of a Lutheran church service to create a hyper-naturalistic, audience-interactive, single-performer story dramatizing recent headlines.
The narrative plays out in seven scenes over the liturgical calendar of 2009-10, each comprising a condensed service consisting of pulpit announcements, a sermon and a sung hymn (accompanied by organist Barbara Browning). The show runs about an hour. Anybody familiar with the release that year of the social statement by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) called “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” — which embraced same-gender partnerships and gay ministers in the church — will certainly anticipate what comes next as pastor Landry Sorenson (Wayne Tyrone Carr) takes the pulpit.
The time is Christmas, and the young, charismatic — and unmarried — Landry reveals that he has been called back to Little Sauk, Minnesota’s Kandota Lutheran Church to take over from his adoptive father, Rev. Ernst Sorensen, the church’s longtime pastor, who is dying of cancer. In his autobiographical homily, Landry quickly reveals himself to be a Peace Corps do-gooder type with a highly developed social conscience, which ultimately led him to accept the calling that his father had explicitly intended for him.
But as the seasons change and Ernst’s prognosis grows bleaker, discordant notes begin to appear in the sermons, such as the desperate plights of the rural, Swedish-descended parishioners, hit hard by the Great Recession; or the questionable use of a loan intended to build a Christian education center for church operations. Most troubling of all, however, is the polarization of the congregation over the ECLA social statement that comes to light when a protest petition is handed to Landry midservice, signed by his father.
As the schism within Kandota Lutheran reaches a boiling point along with a church vote on whether to break away from ECLA, it is probably no spoiler to reveal that Landry’s attempts to hold the congregation together are all but doomed when he reveals how he is personally implicated in the same-sex controversy.
Carr gives a sensitive and convincing performance as a man struggling to reconcile his faith and pastoral duties with his deeply conflicted personal beliefs and the Oedipal undertow of his filial guilt (the role rotates among Amielynn Abellera, Mark Jacobson and Deborah Puette), and director Michael Michetti delivers his usual standards of polish and precision. But the real achievement here is Jacobson’s text, whose critique of religious hypocrisy drills into the same subterranean American fault lines responsible for the xenophobic demagoguery of Donald Trump.