Oct 24, 2004

The Ironies of Being Earnest

Has L.A. got religion? There seems to be a recent mini-bumper crop of shows that don’t just treat the topic of religion but give it a kind of earnest, un-cynical reckoning, whether their creators’ intention is to satirize its absurdity, interrogate its purpose, even simply celebrate it.

To me this approach couldn’t be more welcome; as a lifelong Lutheran who went to a Jesuit high school—in other words, as someone who was raised in two of the more benign, un-stark Christian traditions, in my view—I’ve always taken religion, and the case for and against it, more seriously than many of my educated friends, while at the same trying to recognize that for many of them religion looks like mania at best, fascism at worst. Many folks I know either have reasonably rebelled against a harsher tradition than the one I’ve known, or have simply taken at face value the uglier aspects of ascendant fundamentalism. To me, the latter is just a lamentable sign that in the battle to define religious observance, the hard-liners always win in popular perception as the most devout, the most representative of the “true” core of the faith, with the rest of us mainliners being somehow lapsed or watered-down from the “real” thing. Bruce Bawer has an excellent, justifiably shrill book on this, Stealing Jesus; for him as for me, it’s nails on a chalkboard to hear the Christian right and its political agenda called simply “Christian.” Whatever you think of that so-called “family values” platform, it’s simply not true that it represents any monolithic “Christian” worldview. (This would be news, for instance, to Martin Marty, Peter Gomes, or Huston Smith, three wise, circumspect old men who don’t lead a movement--though maybe they should.)

Which is why I respect Julia Sweeney’s LETTING GO OF GOD so much, and why it often reduced me to helpless giggles. She takes on the topic from the inside rather than scoffing from the outside; as she says late in the show, as she bids farewell to the deity she’s decided she can no longer believe in: “It’s because I take you so seriously that I can’t bring myself to believe in you. That’s really sort of a compliment, don’t you think?” It is, and it’s a compliment to the audience, too.

This more straight-faced approach is also behind two other much-talked-about new shows, HOLLYWOOD HELL HOUSE and A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT. I wrote an article on these two plays for Weekly Variety, which has not appeared (and may never, apparently), in which the comment of SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT co-creator/director Alex Timbers seems like these shows’ central principle: “Almost all the information in the show is taken from their own literature. We thought that the best way to satirize the Church of Scientology was to let the Church speak for itself.”

Likewise the creators of HOLLYWOOD HELL HOUSE, Maggie Rowe and Jill Soloway, have used as their raw material actual text from real fundamentalist “hell houses”—Halloween walk-throughs that use blood and guts and special effects to illustrate the wages of such sins as homosexuality, abortion, Harry Potter, raves, or happening to have the wrong religion. Among the leading impresarios of these scarefests is Pastor Keenan Roberts at Destiny Church in Arvada, Colo., from whom Rowe bought a “hell house” kit for a “youth group in West Hollywood.” When I spoke to Pastor Roberts, he was upset that Rowe had misrepresented herself, and he was miffed above all that the HOLLYWOOD version didn’t represent the full production value of his original. He wasn’t particularly bothered by the fact that Rowe and co.’s intention was to satirize his fire-and-brimstone beliefs—indeed, he said he was grateful for the publicity for his own “hell house” kits.

That would seem to be a danger of doing this stuff with a relatively straight face; Rowe told me she’s had Christian fundamentalists attend and not get the joke: “We’ve had a couple of Christain groups come and think it’s a real hell house. We had a woman come up to us and tell us, ‘You are doing such a good thing. Girls need to know what happens if they get an abortion or go to a rave. This is such a great service!’ ” Rowe, herself a more-or-less recovered Baptist, laughs a little uneasily at this, but for Timbers and SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT co-creator/playwright Kyle Jarrow, this kind of misunderstanding is the highest tribute such a satire can receive. Said Timbers: “The basic principle that guides us is that the ultimate sign of success would be if [the Church] embraces [‘Pageant’] and wants to stage it for themselves.” (That’s unlikely: the Church of Scientology spokeswoman I spoke to, Chel Stith, said dismissively, “This is nothing,” and then delivered the ultimate blow to the credibility of any Scientology critique: “This is not litigation material.”)

Towering above all these critiques and satires with its own extraordinary brand of earnestness is THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, a smashing example of an increasingly rare cultural commodity: unintentional camp on a grand scale. There’s no winking here, no self-conscious acknowledgement of its own cheesiness, which somehow makes it all the more stunning. I went because Weekly Variety was interested in a story from the scene of a purported train wreck—there were reports that its performances had been cut back in response to bad press, and fresh talk that its planned January run at Radio City Music Hall in New York has been “postponed.” (Souvenir item of the year is a $7 totebag, for sale in the Kodak lobby, with the “Val Kilmer IS Moses” artwork and the following optimistic itinerary: “Hollywood New York Chicago Boston Las Vegas.”) Frankly, it doesn’t look like a train wreck; it looks a well-oiled vehicle utterly confident of its destination. It’s a crazy train, surely, but it shows no signs of going off the rails.

That is, except in the lead performance of Val Kilmer, who seems genuinely humbled by the scale of the show. He’s not a natural stage performer; he has a reticence that can draw us in on-screen, and while it’s often weirdly compelling onstage, he seems to be not entirely present but simply lets the show wash over him and take him. At one point on the night I saw it, while the cast was booming a closing number about saying a prayer for the children (favorite lyric, from the just-down-from-Sinai-with-the-tablets Moses: “Beyond right and wrong, we’re all the same”), Kilmer put his head down and stopped singing for about 30 seconds, either in sincere prayer or exhaustion. You just don’t see this on American Idol.

Spotted in the audience, by the way, was hack director Joel Schumacher, no doubt collecting ideas for the next Batman movie (though he bolted at intermission after buying a bag full of souvenir items), and Carson from Queer Eye, surely picking up some fashion don’ts.

And so the stages of L.A.—home of everything from the Kabbalah Center to the Zen Center, from the Lake Shrine to my own spiritual home of choice—is talking the talk, and walking the walk (or catwalk, as the case may be), of the region’s rich spiritual life.

Can I get a witness?

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