April 28, 2007

What I Learned in the Theatre:
Church by Young Jean Lee

If you go to the theatre often enough, you'll eventually see a heavy-hitter connecting with profound and interesting material. If you're lucky, they'll even knock something out of the park for you.

I'd have thought Christianity was pretty much a dead letter by now, but Young Jean Lee manages to make its sinister and seductive appeal vivid once again—not just immediate, but compelling. Hers is less a vision of faith and Jesus than of sinners (read "pathetic losers") in the hands of a pitiless universe, and of the (baffling, reckless, inspirational?) Christian response of humility and celebration. You lie in wait for irony, but the play is more cunning than that; it dares you to take seriously what you only came to mock.

The writing is taut, clean—it knows where to strike and cuts like a knife, with no wasted motion—and when the going starts getting seriously weird, invokes apocalyptic fever dreams which remind you why this is probably the spookiest religion on earth (at least in deranged, American hands).

But it's also a show (trust me, one does leave singing), and one of Lee's greatest strengths as a writer is an appreciation of the limitations of her texts. Virtually all the speeches are kinds of monologs—preaching and testimony—both of which are easily exhausted since their arguments are necessarily narrow. Preacher and witness, after all, must both establish themes at the outset and stay within those boundaries ever after. Furthermore—this being a play in a downtown New York venue—its arguments are uniquely fragile by virtue of being factitious. Thus any impulse to heighten drama by pressing either the appeals to faith or the details of personal testimony to extremes must be checked, for fear of breaking the illusion. Finally, by adopting the form of the church service, Lee has made it almost impossible to introduce standard dramatic complications (the characters onstage, for example interact only in their formal roles as officiants). Indeed, the bulk of the action itself has been interiorized; the "drama" of this play, to use the Christian terminology, takes place within your soul. All of which deeply undercuts what words alone can do. So it is not suprising that some of the strongest moments of the play turn out to be the interludes of song and dance—moments of pure presence, which not only express what words cannot but reverse the relationship between the spectator and the stage from recipient to percipient.

Alone among writers, playwrights face the special challenge of having to rely on words to create action; the challenge being that words are not action but thought, an abstraction of action. If plays were truly like the world, then things could happen even if no one spoke at all. Instead, with rare exceptions, plays are at best mere representations of action—cunningly disguised, to be sure, but never the thing itself[1]. Since we ourselves increasingly make fewer distinctions between thinking, talking and acting, this problem may eventually disappear. Until that day, the script which can establishe moments of true action, independent of speech, is an artistic accomplishment.

[1] I am not talking about the fact that all drama is necessarily pretense, but of the difference—within any given play—between something actually happening, and people standing around talking about what’s happening. Most scenes in most plays consist of the latter, and there are compelling reasons—related to the fact that drama is pretense—for this to be so. Unfortunately, the power of the camera to suggest vision, and by extension actual experience, has led the theatre to cede the representation of action to film and television, and fall back on elaborately staged dialog as its special province.