🎭 Congregational Schisms | “The Christians” @ Actors Co-Op

The Christians (Actors Co-Op)I’m Jewish. In fact, I’m one of the maintainers of the soc.culture.jewish FAQ, and for a long time ran the Liberal Judaism Mailing List until it withered away. I say that as point of reference #1.

I’m an avid theatre-goer. When a favorite small theatre in Santa Clarita went belly-up a few years ago, we moved our subscription to a small company in North Hollywood called Actors Co-op (FB), based on the quality of their work and their season selection. I tend to believe that subscriptions should be used to bring you to shows you might not choose to see yourself; to take you out of your comfort zone. This is point of reference #2.

But although we like the work of the company, everytime we walked on their campus we were a bit uncomfortable, as their host church had signs at the time indicating they sponsored Jews for Jesus. I would read in their program that they are a “company of Christian actors driven by passion for the Lord Jesus Christ.” Reference point of reference #1. So when I saw that the last show of this season was to be “The Christians” by Lucas Hnath — about which I knew nothing — needless to say I was a bit worried. Was this going to be overlay Christalogical? Would it be overly preachy? Would I be squiriming in my seat: a Jewish boy in a sea of goyim?

Luckily, the answer was “no”, and this company continued their tradition of producing thought-provoking theatre of the highest quality, that didn’t tell you want to think but made you question what you thought. That is what theatre — and churches and synagogues — should do.

The Christians is about a megachurch that is on the precipice of a schism, only they don’t know it yet. At the worship service that starts the show, Pastor Paul starts with a four-part sermon that explores where the church is today, how it got there, and where it is going. He relates a story, and raises a controversial notion: What if you don’t have to be Christian to be saved from the fires of Hell? What if Hell doesn’t exist? What if you don’t have to believe to get into Heaven? Initially, much of the church goes along with the pastor, except for the Associate Pastor Joshua, who can’t accept the notion. Joshua and his followers leave, going off to form their own church. And thus from this little crack…

Soon, questions start to emerge. What is the impact of this on Church donations and membership? What was the history behind the relationships, and the conflicts, between Paul and Joshua? Was the timing questionable — why did the pastor wait to drop this until just after the mortgage was paid off? More and more questions, with answers that weren’t always easy, or provided.

Where to start analyzing this… especially this week, when we’ve seen a number of states attempting to legislate what is in essence a religious decision, ostensibly to help prevent people from going to Hell for their actions…

Let’s start with the Jewish perspective. My wife turned to me during the show, when the Pastor gave his sermon, and said it sounded like he had a Jewish conversion. The Jewish notion of Gehenna (what the Christians call Hell) is very different than the Christian notion; quoting from the FAQ: “Gehennom (lit: the valley of Hinnom, in Jerusalem; i.e. hell) is the sinner’s experience in the afterlife. In other words, it’s the same “place” as gan eiden (lit: the garden of Eden; i.e. heaven) — it’s the perspective of the individual that makes it one or the other.” As for Satan: Satan is no devil with horns. He is the challenger, placed there to give you the choice between good and evil, so that you have the ability to choose to do good. Thus, it turns out that this play — which I feared would be pushing Christian notions of believing in Jesus to be saved, was actually presenting a very Jewish notion.

But, of course, it wasn’t accepted. There was a growing number of people that couldn’t accept that heaven and hell were the same place, with only perspective differing between them. They wanted there to be a requirement to believe in Jesus to be saved. That, indeed, is a fundamental notion in many churches. It is the belief that is important more than action. It is witnessing that belief to others, to convert more people to Jesus. As the play showed, that provided comfort to many, and a growing number wanted that path.

Was it the right path? The play does not answer that question.

Schisms in congregations are nothing new. Our congregation in Northridge had something similar. The Board had a difference in direction from the Senior Rabbi, and he was let go. He has since attempted to form his own congregation, while the original congregation is finding its way. If you look at a history of the congregations in the valley — and I’m sure this is true for the churches as well — they all form from splits from other congregations, each tweaking what they saw as their missions and their interpretations of their core teachings. Who is right and who is wrong? I can’t say, nor can our country. We have the freedom to find many paths to our salvation, and some of those paths might even involve belief systems that eschew notions of God completely (and yes, that’s a belief system as well). All we can say for certain is that we all question why we are here at some point.

In the end, we left the show — and the talkback afterwards — quite pleased. Theatre did what theatre is supposed to do: raise questions. This company did what its mission is: “pursuing the highest standards of theatrical excellence”. It made the audience think and question their beliefs; it provided understanding without preaching. I’m very glad that we saw the show.

It didn’t hurt that, under the direction of Thomas James O’Leary (⭐FB, FB), the cast was uniformly excellent. At the talkback, we learned that the script was quite unusual, which many actions not spelled out (e.g., lines that were “…” or “and and and”). This director did an excellent job with the cast of expanding the unwritten lines, the hidden text, into performance. Not being a performer, I always have trouble understanding what a director does, but this production provided more insight on the role.

In the lead position was Townsend Coleman (FB) as Pastor Paul. Coleman had the bulk of the stage time: the whole sermon, and the whole questioning afterwards. His performance was mesmerizing — holding the audience’s congregation’s attention, teaching, questioning, and in the end, doing an effective job of questioning himself. We truly enjoyed watching him.

Working in a different direction was Thomas Chavira (FB) as Associate Pastor Joshua. Joshua was true to his name: blowing the trumpets that started the walls tumbling down. Chavira did a great job of youth in opposition: a man with a different belief that was equally strong, and that he turned into leadership when confronted. It was interesting to watch.

The other characters on the bima pulpit were smaller: Phil Crowley as Elder Jay, and Kay Bess (⭐FB, FB) as Elizabeth, Pastor Paul’s wife. Both were effective in the questions they raised to Pastor Paul, and in how they inhabited the characters that question. Where Crowley really shined was in the talkback: we had a delightful theological discussion with him that could have gone on for hours (and who knows, perhaps we’ll connect again in real life and it will).

Behind the pulpit was the choir, which was wonderful. Before I note the choir members, I must call out Jenny, played by Nicole Gabriella Scipione (FB), who gave a wonderful testimony and raised some very pointed questions. She was truly believable; what more can you want from an actor. The choir consisted of the following members — and note that there was an A and B choir, and we had the A choir. Note also that our A choir was truly “A”: they had the most wonderful and angelic expressions as they sang. The combined choirs consisted of: Khara Bigham (FB); Aislin Courtis (⭐FB, FB); Hattie Sue Dahlberg (FB); Mary Moore Driggers (FB); James Everts (⭐FB, FB);  Catherine Gray (FB); Tim Hodgin (FB); Laura Kelly (FB);  Deborah Marlowe (FB); Maurice McGraw (FB); Kyle Montgomery (FB); Ariel Murillo (FB); Fadeke Oparinde (FB); Amanda Peterson (FB); Andrew Retland (FB); Daniel Schwab (FB); Cody Scurlock (FB); Kevin Shewey (FB); Isaac Sprague (FB); Paige Stewart (FB); and Bria St. Julien (FB).

Turning to the production side: Nicholas Acciani (FB) did something I’ve never seen before in the Crowley Theatre — laid down wall-to-wall carpet. I hope they find a good use for it after the show. Other than that, not being familiar with the layout of a Christian pulpit — which changes by denomination, and is very different from a bima layout — I can only state that it gave an appropriate Christian feeling. Donny Jackson (FB)’s lighting design seemed appropriate, and worked well with Nicholas Acciani (FB)’s projections. David B. Marling (FB)’s sound design used something you don’t see in this day and age: wired microphones, and worked really well. E.B. Brooks (FB)’s costume design seemed reasonably churchly.  Rounding out the production credits: Josie Austin (FB) – Stage Manager; Heather Chesley (FB) – Artistic Chairwoman; Nora Feldman (FB) – Publicist; Jazmin Henderson (⭐FB, FB) – Asst. Stage Manager; Carly Lopez (FB) – Producer; Noriko Olling (FB) – Music Arranger / Pianist; Dylan Price (FB) – Choir Director; Selah Victor – Production Manager.

The Christians continues at Actors Co-op (FB) until June 16th. If you’re not Christian, don’t be put off by the title — this is a great debatable theological question for everyone. If you are Christian, well, it’s still a great debate and a great show. In any case, it will do what theatre is supposed to do: make you think. Tickets are available through the Actors Co-Op website; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) [2018-2019 season], and the Musical Theatre Guild (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. The last weekend of May will see me at Bronco Billy – The Musical at Skylight Theatre (FB).

June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). If you are unfamilar with Fringe, there are around 380 shows taking place over the month of June, mostly in the stretch of Santa Monica Blvd between 1 bl W of La Brea to 1 bl E of Vine, but all generally in Hollywood. On a first pass, there were lots I was interested in, 30 I could fit on a calendar, but even less that I could afford. Here is my current Fringe schedule as of the date of this writeup. [Here’s my post with all shows of interest — which also shows my most current HFF19 schedule. Note: unlike my normal policy, offers of comps or discounts are entertained, but I have to be able to work them into the schedule with the limitations noted in my HFF19 post]:

In terms of non-Fringe theatre (which, yes, does exist): Currently, the first weekend of June is open, although I’m thinking about Ready Set Yeti Go at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) [if the publicist contacts me or I see it on Goldstar for Saturday]. Fringe previews start the next week. The end of June also brings Indecent at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on June 28, just before the busy last weekend of Fringe.

As for July, it is already filling up. The first weekend of the month is still open. The second weekend brings An Intimate Evening with Kristen Chenowith at,The Hollywood Bowl (FB).  The third weekend of July brings Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), followed by A Comedy of Errors from Shakespeare by the Sea (FB)/Little Fish Theatre(FB). The last weekend of July brings West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). August starts with an alumni Shabbat at camp, and The Play That Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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