God and Jesus have a sex scene in act two of See What Love the Father Has Given Us, artist Asher Hartman's three-act trip into the weirdness of the Holy Trinity, currently at Machine Project in Echo Park. This scene plays out on top of a table that an audience of no more than twelve sits around.
Depending on where you're seated, the action might be uncomfortable, but it's not especially explicit. While there are tangled embraces, charged caresses and some crawling and mounting, no clothes come off, and the encounter ends abruptly when God, a taut, petite dark-haired girl, pulls away from the ganglier, milder Christ. “You would put your tongue in your own father's mouth?” she says with some disgust.
The table Father and Son are on is in a makeshift box-store break room. Both actors wear red Circuit City shirts with khakis, and they make sure their boss, Smoke, who channels the Holy Spirit when not chastising employees or pitching electronics, will not interrupt before they let things get heated.
See What Love the Father Has Given Us, a “religio-dramedy,” according to the program, proceeds more as a series of sensations than a legible story. Audiences are led between three rooms for an hour and ten minutes, and told not to lean on anything because it might move, or a trap door might open.
Hartman, whose interactive dramas usually have all the staples of stage productions — sets, costumes, characters, choreography — and all the abstract freedom of performance art, began developing this play last October. Machine Project, which has been hosting performances, exhibits and workshops on Alvarado since 2003, wanted to change how visitors and passers-by interact with its space. One idea was to build a haunted office, maybe with booby traps and eerie lighting.
Machine's director Mark Allen worked with Hartman and artist-engineer Nate Page (who recently turned Machine into an open-air plaza by removing the storefront window and reinstalling it 20 feet back) on haunted office plans, until Hartman's ideas started to spread in a different direction. An office space with a life of its own, and that takes control away from those who work in it, reminded Hartman of big box employees and “the power dynamics of work.” There's something Protestant and patriarchal about those dynamics, and Hartman's thoughts “soon broadened out to the nature of power relations in the Western Christian milieu, an obviously huge topic,” he says, “and then of course reached the notion of The Holy Trinity quickly.”
The wonky, narrow “transdimensional hallway” at Machine Project that would have been a corridor through the haunted office became Hartman's set for a production in which Christ manifests as a tortured and empathic Circuit City employee named Rex (Joe Seely), and God is a spiritually fierce coworker named Ray (Jasmine Orpilla) who eats Cheezits and plays mind games.
The hallway, says Hartman, “has a kind of altar-like quality, with its ability to confine and detain [you] in certain states….You're kind of lost for a moment…and in a state that could take you into emotional involvement more readily.” Audience members might gasp when Rex steps out of the way during act one to reveal Ray, lit from above and staring beadily. They might notice Smoke (Marcus Kuiland-Nazario) gazing in from a hallway peephole, while Rex, who's ushered everyone into the break room by that point, administers communion. Ginger ale and Bushmills, in lieu of grape juice and wine, are the choices. “They are what they say they are,” says Rex. “There are no tricks in this play, just traps.”
In the second act, everyone settles into roles as boss or employee. In the third, spiritual energy and romantic energy converge and then crescendo.
Ray as God emotionally toys with Rex as Christ, giving affection, then giving a cold shoulder. “I tend to think of the God in the piece as something like the fluctuating presence of the God of the Old Testament and [the Egyptian sun god] Ra — multifaceted, wise, vengeful, and loving, compassionate, betrayed,” says Hartman. He's interested in how God could be benevolent, Christ an emblem of freedom, and yet hierarchical Christianity could be like a job in big box retail, that “strips you of the feeling of having any power and worth at all.” Near the play's end, God, assures Christ she love him. When Christ accuses her of “saying that to everyone,” she impishly admits that, yes, she does.
Jasmine Orpilla, who plays Ray/God, wrote the song that ends the play. Other “extra” actors converge to accompany her, and it sounds like something you'd hear at a hip evangelical service, where guitarists and drummer accompany pretty young worship leaders. But the lyrics are more plea than praise: “We want to go home…We're afraid to die…All I ever wanted was to love my son.” The refrain, “See what love the Father has for us,” feels like a question and taunt: Can you see the love?
See What Love the Father Has for Us at Machine Project, 1200-D N. Alvarado St.; through April 24; $10. (213) 483-8761, machineproject.com.