Rapture of the Deep
a new play by Eric Lane Barnes
directed by John Vreeke
September 10-15, 2010 at Balagan Theatre
Reviews: "Rapture of the Deep"
Balagan's Rapture of the Deep is Honest, Moving, Deeply Personal
Review by Matthew Echert
Arts Writer, posted 09/20/10
It isn't particularly often that the speaking-in-tongues, demon-obsessed, "I brake for the Rapture" subculture of true believers comes to be portrayed on stage. It’s even less often that those portrayals evoke genuine empathy. Since it seems relatively safe to assume that the ranks of the serious theatre-making and the serious theatre-going contain relatively few serious religious devotees, it would be all too easy to take the low road, mocking the eccentricities of the faithful while ignoring their humanity.
In his semi-autobiographical new play Rapture of the Deep, Seattle playwright and composer Eric Lane Barnes chooses to walk a fine line, gently poking fun at some of the absurdities of organized religion while simultaneously exploring the very real and universal human yearnings that drive people deeper into it.
The story unfolds in two different time periods separated by three decades. In the course of playing make-believe church, eleven-year-old Jimmy (Dylan Zucati) hears a heavenly calling and discovers he has an aptitude for doing the Lord’s earthly work. Religion ceases to be make-believe and becomes a very real pursuit. (I can hear the skeptics among you snickering. Be nice.) Through either Providence or coincidence--it’s largely left to you to decide which--prepubescent Jimmy gains a reputation as a faith healer. Alas, his faith is not enough to save himself from an early demise.
In the present, Jimmy’s sister Wanda (Kris Mainz) has never been able to move past her grief over her lost little brother, twisting these feelings up in her relationship with her own son Guy (Bobby Temple).
To varying degrees, Uncle Jimmy’s ghost haunts everybody in the show. Not really in a literal, “avenge thy dear father’s death” kind of way. Not really in a theatrical, “the ghost isn’t really there but exists merely to dramatize the character’s own internal grappling with mortality” kind of way (à la Six Feet Under), either. It’s more after the fashion of Crossing Over With John Edward: Jimmy’s presence is an impalpable but perennially present force. Unlike Crossing Over, the ghost story that’s central to Rapture is neither maudlin nor phony; it’s honest, moving, and deeply personal.
Guy and his best friend Bethany (Lauren Kottwitz) hold a makeshift séance over a candle and a can of Coca-Cola, to the great consternation of Bethany’s born-again mother (Alyssa Keene), who takes it upon herself to bring Guy into the light and quite literally purge him of his demons.
The performances are mostly good, occasionally clumsy but unfailingly earnest. Lauren Kottwitz hits all the right notes as rebellious, sarcastic, but exceedingly charming Bethany. Alyssa Keene also shines with a nuanced performance in a difficult role, never letting her characterization slip into caricature.
Under the direction of John Vreeke, all of the cast do an admirable job of directing focus and evoking scenery on the necessarily spartan set.
Rapture of the Deep works hard to earn its moments of catharsis, and though it drags a little bit early on, the payoff is well worth the setup. The script is at turns touching and funny, though not without a few rough edges, as any new work inevitably has. Several scenes include beautifully sung hymns performed by the entire cast. These are also by Barnes, who is the Assistant Artistic Director of Seattle Men’s Chorus. It’s perhaps in these moments that Rapture soars highest. I found in them a reminder of the beauty and humanity of pure faith despite the occasional ludicrousness of its worldly manifestations. Undoubtedly, others with different experiences of faith and religion had different reactions to it than I.
This is what makes Rapture a challenging, worthwhile production. It is a play that raises open-ended questions rather than making bold pronouncements, that strains to understand rather than seeking to impart. Its title refers to a term coined by Jacques-Yves Cousteau to describe the effects of nitrogen narcosis, a dangerous kind of delirium that sets in as divers descend deeper underwater. The deeper Rapture’s characters descend into loneliness and desperation, the more fantastical their visions of the world are susceptible to becoming.
Leaving the theatre I wasn’t sure exactly what I should be walking away from this performance with, and I think that’s appropriate. This is the kind of work that I want to see theatres like Balagan producing: It’s new, it’s local, and it’s risky.
Rapture of the Deep is the final production at Balagan’s Pike Street location. High rent and the physical restrictions of the space limit Balagan’s growth, so they’re moving on to an as-yet undisclosed location. The challenges of their current space should be obvious to anyone who sees shows there: the relatively small space limits the amount of seating available; the low ceiling gives lighting designers little to work with; concrete walls and a cramped layout hold scenic designers within a pretty small box. A better facility will hopefully alleviate some or all of these problems.
Still, the loss of Balagan is another blow to the Pike/Pine corridor, which lost Capitol Hill Arts Center in 2008, and it will be a blow to Capitol Hill if they ultimately move elsewhere in the city. They’re already planning at least three other shows this season according to Executive Director Jake Groshong, as well as a remount of their well-received and completely sold out (as of this writing) live-action adaptation of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Of course we still have Annex Theatre, Theater Schmeater, Northwest Film Forum, and Velocity Dance Center, (which recently moved into CHAC’s vacated building,) but this Capitol Hill denizen is hoping Balagan lands somewhere good and not too far away.
Theatre Review: by Bond Huberman
September 16, 2010
Balagan Theatre’s Rapture of the Deep digs up more quandaries than it answers about Rapture Christianity – or any form of spirituality for that matter. And I’m OK with that.
The driving metaphor of the play is inspired by nitrogen narcosis, or “rapture of the deep,” an expression coined by Jacques Cousteau, which induces euphoria or disorientation in divers at certain depths. It suggests that investing yourself in an experience too far beyond the realm of the living holds both enticing rewards and consequences. You may feel free at first, but there’s a risk of misleading yourself, losing touch with reality and, in some cases, never coming back.
That alone would be a pretty tired exploration of faith in a play. But Seattle playwright Eric Lane Barnes just gets started there.
In a well-conceived layer cake of flashbacks, soliloquies and comedic scenes that interact with the audience – combined with dynamic characters and smart staging – the ensemble, directed by John Vreeke, executes nicely this quirky, and perhaps not-totally-polished meditation on whether or not faith is a boon, a crutch, a beautiful otherworldly experience, or a terrifying fog of denial and misinformation.
Set in the South and the Midwest, the story follows three generations of characters who are all lonely, all confused about where they fit – and all desperate to be loved better and more by someone. That desperation eventually leads them all to either accept or reject God. And it’s never quite clear who is happier for their choice.
Barnes original songs or hymns – performed in beautiful a capella harmony by the cast – are a really important and successful choice in the play. The musical interludes elevate the wry criticism of religion to a more complicated experience – so the play isn’t allowed to simply poke religion in the eye for a laugh and move on. It’s difficult to describe, but it helped the play to foster more visceral and impactful discussions of religion, belief and God than I’ve experienced for some time.
I especially enjoyed following the story of Eileen Oliver (played well by Alyssa Keen, shown right), a somewhat deranged single mother who is simultaneously raising a flock of new born-again-Christians in her prayer group and her own teenage daughter (Lauren Kottwitz) a dark, pragmatic foil to her own infuriatingly cheery, sing-song façade.
In a beautifully performed monologue, Eileen tells the story that took her from a gruesome suicide attempt (I still cringe remembering her description of her thighs being stuck together after the blood from her various cutting dries) to a seemingly even more desperate place: a “blessed life” cloaked over a plain-to-see underbelly of loneliness. Though her dysfunctional relationship with her daughter Bethany makes it hard to see her as sympathetic – I do empathize more with the plight of her finding faith: a wholehearted dive into the depths of Rapture Christianity, ill-advised or not, is at least a step forward in finding some shred of confidence in herself.
Finally, I appreciate how the play seems to occupy the Balagan’s space fully – as if the company is conscious of giving it one last go before they have to move out of their dreamy centralized space in the basement of Boom noodle. The scenes explore every possible dimension and corner (except for the ceiling, maybe), reminding us that theatre is not about stages, but about tight scenes and believable characters working in rhythm. And that, this play has.
Highlight: Sean Marlow’s performance as a variety of ensemble characters. Even in small parts, he comes on stage like a lightning bolt, snapping everyone to attention and (unfortunately) shining a light on the less-honed abilities of some of his cast-mates. I hope to see more of him soon.
Lowlight: poorly-fitting and, frankly, hideous costumes. Even contemporary plays about middle America operating on a Value Village budget should make smart wardrobe choices that add to our understanding of characters, not relive our last stressful experience at the Marshall's returns counter.
A musical memoir about religious epiphanies
Review by Kevin Phinney
Wednesday, Sep 15 2010
I suppose everyone's relationship to spiritual ecstasy is uniquely their own. I recently bought a greeting card for an agnostic friend of mine that shows an 18th-century painting of a man roused from slumber by a shimmering vision of the Messiah. Next to the luminescent apparition, the card creators inserted a word balloon over the waking penitent: It said simply "Trying to sleep here!!"
Those singular religious epiphanies are plumbed to their depths in this new semi-autobiographical "play with music" by Eric Lane Barnes. Best known locally for his work with the Seattle Men's Chorus and innumerable performances at the recently defunct Martin's Off Madison piano bar, Barnes has put together a show that's surprisingly terrific, if a little rough. While his text remains unwieldy and the performance runs 20 minutes longer than it should, the characters are memorable, the acting excellent, the story intriguing, and the original music often spellbinding.
Barnes' story revolves in concentric circles of religious conversions: First, there's baby evangelist Jimmy (Dylan Zucati, playing a role based on a real-life uncle), who wants to "play church" even as a preteen. Some 35 years later, his nephew Guy (Bobby Temple) falls under the spell of his best friend's mom, the recently converted Eileen (Alyssa Keene), whose daughter Bethany (Lauren Kottwitz) is a sort of post-goth Mama Cass with a filthy mouth, a none-too-secret crush on Guy, and alto pipes that ring out across the theater like a cathedral bell. There's a certain amount of repetition as we witness the characters transported by their own experience of demons and the Great Beyond. But the clutter clears often enough to see that Barnes' characters are distinct, and they're all fighting in the playwright's mind for stage time they deserve.
Barnes' melodies are lovingly crafted to the standards of pre-gospel hymns, each one a little prayer set to music. That the blend of voices stops just short of perfection lends authenticity and serves as a reminder that this is a congregation, not American Idol tryouts. I haven't darkened a church doorway in decades, but it took me back to a time when I was a regular, and reminded me why it meant so much at the time.
Finally we're left asking: What is the nature of belief in something we can't see or hear? And who's using whom in trying to save the great unwashed? As Neil Diamond once remarked when someone accused him of glorifying charlatans in his tent-revival set piece, Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show, people don't know they're being taken for a ride; they only know they've got hope they didn't have before. And in the end, even false hope is still hope.