Thursday, March 12, 2009

This Beautiful City

It’s possible that Steve Cosson and The Civilians are just incredibly lucky. They could not have known, of course, when they went to conduct interviews in Colorado Springs, CO in the weeks before and after the 2006 mid-term elections the enormous surprise the future held for them. They chose Colorado Springs because, before the conservative cultural revolutions of the ‘80s and ‘90s, it had merely been a home for hippies, ski bums and NORAD. In more recent years, it has been transfigured into the sort of place that would house the headquarters for 81 different religious organizations—among them James Dobson’s Focus on the Family group and Ted Haggard’s New Life Church, a mega-church with 10,000 members—making it, unofficially, the most evangelical city in the U.S.

And, lo, the gods of irony looked down upon The Civilians and they did bless them, for their visit to Colorado Springs coincided exactly with the explosive revelation that Reverend Ted had been having a sexual relationship with a male prostitute for three years.

I found it interesting that this bombshell is not actually the focus of This Beautiful City, the resulting docu-theater performance now playing at The Vineyard: it isn't even revealed until just before the end of Act I. Since we all know it's coming, of course, it does add incredible irony to every line uttered by every member of the Colorado Springs community—believers and non-believers alike. The script that has resulted from The Civilians' interviews is a lot more even-handed than I expected and it effectively illustrates the complicated situation we face in the U.S. with regard to individual beliefs and individual liberties. The play does not demonize the believers—although, by keeping some of the interviewees' more inarticulate or just plain-ignorant statements, the authors have allowed them to demonize themselves—and there are several characters who make persuasive arguments for how discovering their faith has dramatically changed their lives.

The production is engagingly and intelligently directed by Steve Cosson. There's a filmic quality to the way he has intercut the different subject interviews that succeeds because he has created this style using innately theatrical devices: simultaneous dialogue, musical numbers, direct address to the audience (which I don't usually like but it works here). The very talented cast of six actors—Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Brandon Miller, Stephen Plunkett and Alison Weller—all play several characters with little more than costume pieces to distinguish each one and yet their performances are so distinct and clear that I had no trouble recognizing New Life's Associate Minister (Heberlee) each time he reappeared—before the actor even spoke a word. Michael Friedman's original songs are almost all in the soft-rock/pop musical style that all these suburban churches have adopted; it's about my least favorite kind of music but entirely appropriate for this piece.

It appears that Ted Haggard himself has been to see the production; I'd love to hear what he thinks of it all. I was concerned that This Beautiful City would be annoying: whichever side of the dialogue you prefer, the other side has enormous potential to annoy. Instead, I was completely entertained and captivated by it all and still felt that I'd been given a thorough and balanced view of the issues involved. Which say to me that The Civilians are most definitely not lucky: they're just good.

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