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“The Christians” at the Taper: Much to Ponder

Andrew Garman in “The Christians" at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

Andrew Garman in “The Christians” at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a time-worn adage which says one should never discuss politics or religion. Particularly these days, as fractures within the largest faith in the US – Christianity – have divided people into liberal and conservative camps, mainstream denominations and evangelical start-ups, small worship environments and mega-churches, the danger of debate is evident everywhere from social media to political campaigns. Many works of theater have attempted to address the swirling issues involved: faith, money, salvation, adaptability (or lack of it) and practical business which define modern religion in the US. Few have jumped into the central argument with both feet as thoroughly as Lucas Hnath’s award-winning “The Christians,” now arrived at the Mark Taper Forum.

The plot proves deceptively simple. You are invited into the service of a massive mega-church to hear a sermon by Paul, it’s founder. In that sermon, he admits to having had to confront an essential tenet of the faith he has professed, and announces a change in belief, and thus direction, which he feels will be a more faithful interpretation of God’s word. And this is where the fracturing begins. As playwright Hnath states in an introduction to the piece, “putting… beliefs into words will always result in a misinterpretation of said beliefs.” And as his associate pastors, his parishioners, even his wife struggle with change, rift, and for some a sense of betrayal, the entire underlay of belief shows its raw, unfinished edges.

Andrew Garman makes Paul a man of deep sincerity whose sense of assuredness – of being able to take his followers with him on what they will see as a radical journey – shows you how the character gathered such a flock, at the same time it also makes him unable to see how fragile his hold really is. These same people may easily fall away from changes in something they consider their rock. As the antithesis to Paul’s belief, Larry Powell gives great heart to associate pastor – a man whose faith was formed at Paul’s feet, and whose more narrow passion for the mission of the church leaves him with no room for the sudden shifts in his personal foundations.

Exemplifying the terrible cost of change upon parishioners of any church which offers absolute answers to the questions of its followers is Emily Donahoe as a single mother torn between supporting her long-time pastor and a desperate need for a community she now sees moving away from him. Philip Kerr, as a church trustee, brings in the financial realities – what happens when the monetary base for a hugely complex ministry is shaken by dissent and rifts. And in a last, but particularly powerful set of scenes, Linda Powell brings the struggle of the supportive wife whose beliefs no longer sync with her husband’s. What are her choices in this situation?

Staged as a riff off of a classic mega-church Sunday service, thanks to Dane Laffrey’s evocatively stark set, the production balances the rather cerebral and pointed conversations with the uplifting music of a gospel choir led with style by Scott Anthony. Director Les Waters has a feel for this juxtaposing of the public and private, and the piece moves with the constancy of a well-oiled religious experience, even as it questions much of what that experience means. The play is performed without an intermission, letting the tension rise as expectations would have in a service. The very beauty of this show’s “construction” makes it particularly engaging.

Of course, even that pales next to the potential inner struggles one can hear within the audience itself, as some look in from the outside, some find themselves siding with one element or another of this potent and unfinishable argument. Most certainly it will offend some, satisfy others and leave many with a lot to talk about after the play is over. I strongly suggest (and I never do this) that one read the introduction by the playwright in the program itself, as it lays groundwork for openness and gives one more access to the play’s essential points just by setting a mindset ahead of time.

“The Christians” is powerful, in its intertwining of intellect and passion. As such, it does what theater does so well – make people think, ponder their own understandings, share with others and, regardless of viewpoint, become emotionally engaged in either the concept or the characters, or both. Don’t go to see an easy play, but go to see one which will stick with you.

What: “The Christians” When: Through January 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Marjorie Prime” at the Taper: A speculation on human-techological interaction

Lisa Emory and Lois Smith square off as daughter and mother in "Marjorie Prime" [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lisa Emory and Lois Smith square off as daughter and mother in “Marjorie Prime” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Some of the best science fiction of the past 60 years or so has revolved around the concept of artificial intelligence, and the potential for robotics to mimic humanity. As we get closer to the reality of such things, we begin to examine the powers, limitations, and emotional effects a human-looking electronic being could have on the human race.

Which brings me to “Marjorie Prime,” a play by Jordan Harrison receiving its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. In some ways it says things echoed in other quarters about the limitations of programming, in other ways it offers a new examination of the plusses and pitfalls of emotional interaction with humanoid machinery.

The given in the world of “Marjorie Prime” is that one can create a robotic version, physically anyway, of someone who has passed away. That “prime” version of the person must then be programmed through the process of human reminiscence to talk and behave in a way that will mimic the original person. According to Harrison, the effects of such a thing will vary, depending on the person and the circumstance, from therapeutic to destructive.

Jeff Ward and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Jeff Ward and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lois Smith is Marjorie, a woman with advancing dementia. We first meet a “prime” in the form of Walter Prime (Jeff Ward), a youthful-looking replacement for the husband she lost long before, whose programming by several people allows him to remind her of her own past, and – as in “The Notebook” – keep Marjorie more connected to her own history than would otherwise be possible.

Marjorie’s world is also populated by those who love her: her frustrated, sometimes bitter daughter Tess (Lisa Emery) and her gentle, empathetic son-in-law Jon (Frank Wood). As time goes on, Marjorie and later Tess become “prime” versions. What was therapy for someone without a memory becomes hauntingly incomplete and increasingly painful for those whose memories are intact but limited to their own perspectives, making it difficult to program the replacements themselves. Will programming a prime stave off loss? Did the programmer “get” the interior monologue of the lost person well enough to create an imitation with any kind of veracity?

Lisa Emery and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lisa Emery and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Smith makes the distinction between Marjorie and her “prime” version a symphony of subtleties. Her spot-on dementia persona drifts into a static, formula personality in ways which underscore the point of the play. Emery’s Tess moves from frustration with impending loss to frustration with the limits of imitation, to the blandness of imitation itself. Wood’s Jon, played as a man whose heart is big and often worn on his sleeve, curdles as his world is increasingly artificial.

And – in one stark statement of a scene – the three primes try conversing with each other as if they were real. The conclusions are all in there.

Director Les Waters moves the setting and tone of the piece into increasing isolation, just as the play does. Sometimes this makes the staging rather static – unfortunate in a work which is all underplayed to some extent, to maximize the few moments of great emotion. Mimi Lien’s minimal set, which moves at one point to make its own interesting statement, keeps the focus on the personalities (or, in some cases, the lack of personality) which make this play interesting to watch, but emphasizes their bleakness and increasingly spare environment.

“Marjorie Prime” moves slowly, and is performed without intermission. As a play it is a “ponderable,” and that balance between what has been said before and what is new may inspire many to dismiss it as almost cliché in its view of the potential advances of AI. To avoid that, one must focus on the human characters. One wishes there was a bit more chance to do so.

What: “Marjorie Prime” When: Through October 19, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 S. Grand Ave. at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25-$70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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