Feb 23, 2009


Over at Critic-O-Meter, early reviews for the Civilians' This Beautiful City are pretty mixed. I saw it last week myself, and pretty much loved it, but then, I have to own up to a personal bias: I'm a sucker for anything that treats religion and/or spirituality with circumspection, humor, skepticism, and wonder. Indeed, though I'm a liberal Christian myself, and I do recognize some Christian-right modalities from an evangelist-adjacent upbringing in Arizona-fried Missouri Synod Lutheranism, I'm especially drawn to what might be called the respectfully secular view--the fascinated, un-smug, clear-eyed attitude I sense in Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God; in Jona Frank's new photojournalism book about Patrick Henry College, Right (a great narrated slide show is here); in This American Life's famous "Heretics" episode (h/t Amanda). It's the kind of curious, engaged approach I watched Cornerstone Theater Company employ around L.A. in the early aughts in its ambitious Festival of Faith.

The Civilians' new show fits snugly into that genre, and if it adds little new content to the heated American debate over religious intolerance and sexual identity--the show's almost inevitable backbeat, given the political climate and the incredible windfall of the Ted Haggard scandal breaking while the Civilians were on the ground gathering material in Colorado--it nevertheless adds several indispensible voices to the chorus. And it does so in the Civilians' signature style: Anna Deavere Smith-style journo-monologues trading off seamlessly with sung soliloquys that exalt or eulogize a emotional state, a character, a tangle of themes. It's an odd, intoxicating blend, and what's quite striking is the bumpy ride it offers a New York audience: The night I saw it, laughter greeted some of the praise-worship elements, only to be silenced by the cast's earnestness; a few righteous anti-evangelical blasts delivered by Brandon Miller roused intense "right on" applause, while similar affirmations on the other side were met with either skeptical silence or titters.

But a different kind of silence, the pin-drop kind, enveloped a few sneakily moving monologues performed by Emily Ackerman: One by a confused young Christian woman with a complicated past, a huge heart, and a chilling imagination, and another by a fiercely self-possessed trannie whose yearning for God, despite what's been done to her in God's name, is palpable and undeniable. To me, this sort of multivalenced portrait is theatrical catnip--or, to keep in the spirit, theatrical manna.

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