Saturday, June 09, 2007

Questioning Faith

"Horizon" at New York Theatre Workshop, June 7, 2007

(Disclaimer: I was invited to attend this performance by NYTW. Thanks for the seats!)

Reinhart Poole, minister and professor of ethics at a seminary has just been fired and is preparing to teach his last class. This is Rinde Eckert's premise for his evening of exploring theology and faith through a highly theatrical performance of song and scenes. A quote from the NYTW press release:
Rinde Eckert says, "The basis for many of the ruminations in Horizon is a modest study of the life and ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr, an influential American theologian and social theorist. But although those familiar with Niebuhr's ideas may see the ghost of them here, one ought not to strain the comparison. My grandfather Thomas D. Rinde, a Lutheran minister, taught religious history at a seminary in Fremont, Nebraska, also serving as its director for many years. I like to think he would be pleased to find himself implicated here in my imagined teacher Reinhart Poole."
For more information about Mr. Niebuhr, check out the article from the NY Times here.

Having been raised Lutheran, my personal spiritual state is one of moderation in life and deeds. I found this discussion of faith and its meaning in one's life one a most interesting evening. This is not a play where one sits back and is "entertained." This thoughtful play kept me engaged for the entire 90 minutes. It was both the subject matter and the clever and skillful staging and direction which accomplished this.

The structure of the evening seemed to follow something of a Lutheran church service presenting, in effect, two Lessons and a Gospel, followed by a Sermon and Benediction. Not having been a regular church-goer since high school, there was a comforting familiarity with this approach. There was one scene transition that felt much like the dressing of an altar.

One of the Lessons showed two men walking along a road. One of the men (Howard Swain) is looking for God. The other (David Barlow) reveals himself to be Lucifer, guarding the road to God. Like an Oedipal Sphinx, the man has to answer three questions to gain entry to God. Otherwise the road never ends. Lucifer appears again later in a creepy monologue that starts out sounding like a fundamental evangelist (an apt likening - Jim Bakker comes to mind), discussing how his intense love and loyalty to God led to his own dismissal from Heaven. Mr. Barlow then makes an even creepier transition from evangelist to evil angel when his voice drops several octaves as his intensity increases. Lucifer becomes the original stalker.

Mr. Eckert explores various teaching methods of Allegory and Parable to communicate, with simple yet clever staging techniques. The play opens with Mr. Poole (Eckert) onstage, reviewing his notes for his final class. Understandably needing an outlet for his thoughts, Mr. Poole has also been writing a play as a means to exorcise/distract him from his personal situation with his job.

In his play (which I interpreted as the Gospel delivered as an Allegory), two stone masons are building the foundation for a cathedral, but never finish because they don't have enough stones to complete the work. This theme continues periodically throughout the evening as he adds to that story. Cinder blocks are used as their stones and a small wall rises over the course of several scenes. The stone masons learn that they are only characters in a play and discuss the ramifications of that. "No wonder I feel incomplete," one of them says. The other responds, "You look well-drawn to me." They learn that they've been working on the foundation for 1750 years and finally find comfort when they realize that their play will remain unfinished, just like their task.

His Sermon addressed the parable of the Prodigal Son. In its own way, this was a parable of Reinhart's own life when his older brother ran away as a child following an argument between the two of them, but without the triumphal return. This spurs much questioning by Reinhart and leads nicely into the last section of the play.

The largest concept/theme I found in this work was the discussion of belief and faith - something of the Benediction. Mr. Eckert posits that belief, when seen as the absence of doubt, undermines faith. Unquestioning faith is blind faith and, therefore, no faith at all. From this, I can only draw my own conclusion that in our current environment of blind faith among the religious right, this is a dangerous truth. For me, it brings to mind the following quote,
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing."
Edmund Burke
Irish orator, philosopher, & politician (1729 - 1797)
I'm not sure that I'm following the mental path Mr. Eckert might have intended, since he did not take the opportunity to get into the evil that men do, but it stuck out in my mind.

All three actors are skilled, talented and compelling. Mr. Eckert, bald and deadpan, gives us a very human man, questioning the world around him. He struggles to both learn and teach, even if he is only teaching others to ask more questions. In the various supporting roles ranging from Reinhart's wife to the stone masons, to Reinhart's brother, father and mother, Howard Swain and David Barlow excel. Mr. Barlow's Lucifer was particularly chilling.

Alexander Nichols' sets and lighting are particularly effective while simple. Seven lighted easels with chalkboards line the back of the stage and serve as Reinhart's classroom as he punctuates each topic with visual representations.

Director David Schweizer is to be commended for his contribution to this work. What could have been a dreary theological dissertation is instead a significant evening of thought and theatre.

I've rambled in this review - sorry about that. The concepts are large and thought-provoking. This is an important and powerful piece. I recommend it highly to anyone who has the opportunity to see it.

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