Tuesday, September 30, 2008

'This Beautiful City' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

by Charles McNulty, Times Theater Critic

The Civilians' docudrama-with-music is an eye-opener, even if it doesn't entirely deliver on its premise.

When a trendy young theater company announces that its next subject is going to be the explosion of the evangelical Christian movement, snarky parody is a natural expectation. What's surprising about "This Beautiful City," a diverting if curiously earnest performance piece by the New York-based company the Civilians, is how it keeps its satiric powder dry.

Some things, such as the blurring of church and state, may be too important to horse around with (though please don't tell Bill Maher). In any case, the Civilians approach the show, which opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, like anthropologists out to understand a culture that for many urban theater types is as alien as some lost Amazon tribe.

Directed by Steven Cosson, who co-wrote the piece with Jim Lewis, and featuring music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, the production is part documentary drama, part musical revue. It doesn't really go far enough in either direction, but as a hybrid collage it's got charm, and a few scary developments are coolly reported.

As is customary for the Civilians ("Gone Missing," "Paris Commune"), "This Beautiful City" began as a research project. In 2006, Cosson and ensemble members descended on Colorado Springs, Colo., to investigate the community in which such evangelical powerhouses asNew Life Church and Focus on the Family make their sizable homes.

This Rocky Mountain locale is a geological wonder. "America the Beautiful" was written here by Katherine Lee Bates, gazing back on the Great Plains from the top of Pikes Peak. This information comes courtesy of a militant writer for a local alternative rag (Brandon Miller), who refuses to be cowed by the zealot crowd, which has carpeted the area with places of worship. "This town could have been like Santa Fe," he says. "And now it's like I'm living in Middle-earth."

New Life, you may recall, was in the papers a while back after a scandal erupted involving the mega-church's pastor, Ted Haggard, a male prostitute and methamphetamines. As it happened, the Civilians were there when the media storm hit, though the saga isn't handled with vituperative glee. Instead, we're allowed to experience the aftermath from the perspective of Haggard's family and congregants, and in this respect, the company faithfully serves theater's ca- pacity to widen understand- ing by presenting situations from competing points of view.

But don't get the impression that the show is as dull as catechism. The liveliness of the ensemble and the pick-me-up beat of the Christian rock numbers make even the church scenes pulse with vitality. And then, of course, there's the clash of ideologies, an ongoing source of melodrama, especially when the issue of gay marriage blows up.

For coastal denizens who think Sundays are made for golf and Chardonnay, the reach of evangelical ambition may prove startling. A Fairness and Equality leader (Alison Weller) tells us about the Christian right's goals of "dismantling social programs" to render its services all the more indispensable. And a "military religious freedom activist" (Miller again) fills us in on developments at the local Air Force Academy, in which the official policy is to "evangelize anyone who comes into the service who is unchurched."

The scenic backdrop, designed by Neil Patel, is a model of a city with cube-like buildings turned on their side and shot through with David Weiner's mod lighting. When a youth pastor (Stephen Plunkett) starts busting some moves to excite his teenage crowd about the glory of God, the effect vaguely suggests "American Bandstand," but behind the cheery facade lies the homogenous dream of a religious kingdom, in which everyone is keeping an eye on everyone else's salvation.

Obviously indebted to "The Laramie Project," the docudrama about the murder of Matthew Shepard, by Moisés Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project, "This Beautiful City" tries to produce a similar balanced snapshot of a community with an intolerant reputation. We're invited into evangelical meetings, and we hear from the ex-debauched about receiving the redemptive call, but there's disappointingly little about a spiritually arid American landscape in which organized religion is the only approved goodness game in town.

Dramatically, the piece doesn't effectively build, though there are a couple of spikes, most notably when Marsha Stephanie Blake assumes the pulpit as a fire-and-brimstone preacher sent to replace a pastor who has just come out of the closet. And Friedman, who musicalizes e-mails, chat room gossip and hot-dog religious ceremonies, keeps the action aloft on his incidental folk-pop, performed by a small band perched in partial view on the set.

A more courageously critical point of view might have galvanized "This Beautiful City," but Cosson and company clearly didn't see the need for any more preaching to the choir.

"This Beautiful City," Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 26. $20 to $45. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.


Monday, September 29, 2008

This Beautiful City

by Laurence Vittes

Bottom Line: A moderately entertaining take on the Evangelical movement in Colorado Springs

The West Coast premiere of a New York troop's take on the rise and fall of one of the nation's most powerful Evangelical churches plays to the current public appetite for scandalous revelation about highly visible public leaders.

The Civilians' production of "This Beautiful City," however, turns out to be a surprisingly pastoral, sympathetic elegy on the rise and fall of the New Life Church and its charismatic leader Ted Haggard. During the occasionally tedious two-hour show, an enthusiastic cast and crew explore the city of Colorado Springs, Colo., which continues to be the home of James Dobson's nationally prominent Focus on the Family.

Supporters and detractors of the Evangelical movement are more likely to enjoy than be offended by this play with music, based on interviews conducted by cast members. The initial thrust combines muted criticism of the movement with a stream of gently sardonic recreations of sermons, meetings and political machinations that amuse the audience with one liners like "Colorado Springs could have been like Santa Fe. Now, I feel like I'm living in Middle Earth."

Although the talented ensemble covers a lot of ground, they make their stand on a number of key points: the pushback of the Colorado College student population and longtime residents of the community against the conforming pressures of the churches, symbolized by a young newspaper editor (earnestly explained Brandon Miller) and a burned-out political activist (sympathetically portrayed by Alison Weller); the outcasting of the gay population, symbolized by the adventures of a Christian T-girl (extravagantly if humorlessly re-created by Emily Ackerman); the dilemma of minority groups, symbolized by various members of a black congregation (Marsha Stephanie Blake).

The documentary style of the presentation provides a nicely fluid structure to the proceedings, setting the stage for a series of reports, discussions, interviews and the occasional song, most of which are written in a folksy cowboy vein, though some driving rock and a hymn of two pop up now and then. The songs are set refreshingly to a variety of often unconventional sung and spoken texts, which creates an unpredictable rhythmic sense to the story while lessening the need for strong voices and perfect intonation.

All of the main members of the cast are called on to perform yeoman duty, and all of them find at least one character that works particularly well for them and the audience. Brad Heberlee's borderline smarmy pastor unifies the evening with his consistently strong shtick and attractive crooning. Stephen Plunkett gives really great religion as one of the church's more outspoken leaders. Ackerman, Weller and Miller show off some amazing feats of versatility, and Blake brings down the house toward the end with a sermon aimed at comforting fallen angels.

The production is attractive, with an unusual backdrop fashioned from an aerial view of Colorado Springs, in front of which furniture and props move unobtrusively in and out with astonishing speed, and a panoramic shot of the Rocky Mountains. A backlit projection screen is used sparingly but to good effect. The title of the play refers to the fact that Katharine Lee Bates' lyrics for "America the Beautiful" were inspired in part by the view from Pike's Peak.

Cast: Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Heberlee, Brandon Miller, Stephen Plunkett, and Alison Weller.
Playwrights: Steven Cosson, Jim Lewis; Music-lyrics: Michael Friedman.
Director: Stephen Cosson.
Set design by Neil Patel.
Costumes by Alix Hester.
Lighting by David Weiner.
Sound design by Ken Travis.
Projection design by Jason H. Thompson.
Music direction by Erik James.
Choreography by John Carrafa.
Casting by Bonnie Grisan.
Musicians: Tom Corbett, Erik James, Mike Schadel and Brian Duke Song.


Showbiz, Religion & Politix

by Army Archerd

It is a treat to watch theater in the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. It is more of a treat to watch it with Kirk and Anne Douglas--seated in the front row. That's where they always sit. And that's where they applaud generously and visibly. So it was again Sunday night at the bow of ”The Civilians' 'This Beautiful City." We were their guests and seated alongside the appreciative Douglases. And there was much to discuss afterwards at supper since the play reflects the troupe's reflections and reactions to their time spent with the "people of Colorado Springs who participated in the creation of this play. In addition to the various dialogs with the locals from church leader to Park rangers and the flawless electronic stage settings identified the New Life Church and other local (Colorado Springs) locations in timely (and supervigorous) challenges to the legality of church and state. The troupe involved the audience with (invited) audible reactions regularly.

Douglas' pride in the theater was further enjoyed by us as we later talked about yet another presentation on these boards. Kirk told of the success of "13." It was readied for its bow at the Mark Taper after valuable workshop at the Kirk Douglas. It officially opened at the other CTG stage, the Taper) on Jan.7, 2007. The reviews were ecstatic, Variety's Bob Verini called it ”sheer bliss." And now it makes its bow on B'way at the Bernard B. Jacobs, Sunday, Oct.5.


Sunday, September 28, 2008


by Steven Leigh Morris

A few years ago, reflecting on The Trial of the Catonsville Nine presented early at his then new Mark Taper Forum, Gordon Davidson remarked on the death of the docudrama, that theater couldn't compete with the ability of the video camera to capture the microscopic physical detail and subtext of people being interviewed, and what they reveal behind and beneath their words and gestures.

Co-writers Steve Cosson and Jim Lewis, working with song-writer-lyricist Michael Friedman and New York-based The Civilians theatre company, demonstrate that one creative solution to this puzzle is to use musical theater to inflate the scale of the presentation, rather than try to put it under the microscope of videocam naturalism. This Beautiful City is an ode to Colorado Springs, Colorado, and follows multiple views from all sides of the local political and theological equations, as pastor Ted Haggard rolls into town, sets up his mega-church and takes a dive when he's outed and finally confesses to using meth.

The six-actor company (Emily Ackerman, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Brad Herberlee, Stephen Plunkett, Alison Weller, Cosson and Lewis) depicts a range of residents whom the actors interviewed for this piece, from resident atheists to religious zealots to one trans-gender “girl”. Mercifully, these are not parodies that load the argument to spoon feed what a lefty audience in Culver City wants to hear, but interpretations reaching for the deepest and most sincere comprehension of the characters, of how life's agonies turn into religious conversions, how God and Jesus become substitutes for a kind of unqualified love and compassion that simply don't exist in Colorado, or anywhere else on Earth. Some of the interviews are sung – a four-piece band sits perched high stage left, while sermons by evangelists and baptist preachers have their own, innate brand of musicality and choreography. The piece is too long -- the rise and fall of Haggard defines its rhythm, but it keeps going for another 20 minutes, as though it's caught between its commitment to be a musical, docu-dramatic portrait of a city, and the almost classical-Greek study in the hubris of one mega-church leader. Right now, it's trying to be both. Still, if you want to understand this country, and why the good citizens of Silver Lake and Soho are so perplexed by the way things unfold here, Colorado Springs is a pretty good place to start.

Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; thru Oct. 26. (213) 628-2772.
Presented by Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles, and the Vineyard Theatre, New York City


Friday, September 26, 2008

Where liberals, evangelicals meet

By Patrick Pacheco

The gulf between evangelical Christians and liberals is examined at Kirk Douglas Theatre.

After John McCain selected Sarah Palin as his vice presidential nominee last month, Steve Cosson, the 40-year-old artistic director of the New York-based theatrical troupe the Civilians, was intrigued by some of the explosive commentary revolving around her membership in an evangelical congregation in her Alaska hometown of Wasilla.

“Palin was quoted as saying, ‘Pray for the pipeline, pray that it’s God’s plan to send soldiers into Iraq,’ ” Cosson says. “And there were all these questions in the mainstream media: ‘Well, what does that mean? What is she talking about?’ And I thought, ‘Well, you know what – you should know what that means, and it’s actually pretty easy to find out.’ But we are willfully ignorant, and so people get a little hysterical when these questions enter the public sphere. You can’t even have a dialogue when you don’t know what the other side is talking about.”

Cosson and his group of professional actors already had tried to bridge that gulf, spending seven months in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2006 investigating the religious beliefs and political agenda of evangelical Americans and what makes liberals in particular respond with fear, suspicion and even loathing. The result is “This Beautiful City,” a work of documentary theater directed and co-written by Cosson (with Jim Lewis), which opens Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre before heading to New York.

The subject matter was a natural for the experimental company, which since its founding by Cosson in 2001 has created an impressionistic oeuvre that includes “Gone Missing,” which explored the nature of losing things; “I (Am) Nobody’s Lunch,” an attempt to determine how we know what we know; and “Paris Commune,” which brought to life a 19th century French revolution. Later this month, the group will launch its next project, “Brooklyn at Eye Level,” an examination of the debates over the surge of development in the diverse and vibrant borough.


The goal of “This Beautiful City” was to plumb some of the “unknowables” in a movement prone to misunderstanding, says Cosson, who grew up in a largely secular and politically moderate household in Potomac, Md., and became fascinated early on with the political power of the religious right. Taking a lunch break from a rehearsal of the play in one of the Douglas’ studios, Cosson says that it was only when he attended Dartmouth College that he realized there were people his age who embraced conservatism.

“Whenever an election comes up, we are suddenly confronted with these divisive issues – abortion, gay rights, separation of church and state – that otherwise remain dormant,” the director says. “And it seems to throw us into a tizzy because we can’t understand how we got there. For many people, the evangelical movement is very much a mystery. As a company, we are interested in going outside ourselves to discover the human stories at a more nuanced level, so it seemed a good match for us.”

To that end, members of the Civilians fanned out across the unofficial capital of the right-wing Christian movement to spend time with more than 100 residents. Reflecting the city’s diversity, the interviews, conducted by Cosson, Lewis and the company, included a writer from a leftist alternative newspaper; a transgendered secretary; cadets at the Air Force Academy; a gay political activist and an African American Baptist minister whose coming out led to his expulsion from the church.

Punctuated with songs by Michael Friedman, the storytelling unfolds through a mix of travel guide copy, e-mails, news reports and interview excerpts. In a largely positive review written during a workshop production of “This Beautiful City” at Washington, D.C.’s, Studio Theatre in July, Washington Post critic Peter Marks described the show’s style as “a lyrical piece of journalism … a ticket to ‘Frontline: The Musical.’ ”

During the group’s residency at liberal Colorado College, Cosson also sought and received the cooperation of the city’s powerful and influential New Life Church. Indeed, he says, the “first pleasant surprise” was that the church welcomed them with a surprising generosity and trust. “It’s genuine; it’s not phony.”

Complicated truths

Midway through the company’s sojourn, Ted Haggard, the mega-church’s senior pastor and head of the 40-million strong National Assn. of Evangelicals, was ensnared in a scandal involving methamphetamines and the services of a male prostitute. After admitting to “sexual immorality,” Haggard resigned from his powerful posts. Such a sensationalistic turn of events presented both opportunities and perils for the project, Cosson says. To dismiss Haggard’s downfall simply as a glaring case of hypocrisy would have missed a larger, more complicated truth.

“Haggard’s congregation understood that he had to resign but, unlike the outside world, they never saw it as hypocrisy because he never claimed to be without sin or humanity,” he says. “They were shocked, hurt, confused and angry, but they don’t necessarily see sin as the truth of the person. They see Haggard’s struggle, like their own, as a fight between good and evil.”

In fact, he adds, “It’s possible to be both evangelical and open-minded. It may be a contradiction, but liberal secular Americans also live with several contradictions. When we hear some people are saved while others are not, I think we’re more freaked out by it than they are. We feel that we’re being judged and we accuse them of being hateful. But they don’t feel hateful at all. Certainly there are some places where you will hear hate, but it’s not an emotional truth for the majority.”

Such nuances are lost, however, when religious beliefs enter the political and legislative realm. “This Beautiful City” features characters vociferously militating against the agenda of some of Colorado Springs’ conservative church groups. The company was conducting interviews there in the fall 2006 when there were two state initiatives on the ballot – Referendum 1, which would extend benefits to domestic partnerships, and Amendment 43, which would define marriage as a union between a man and woman. The former was defeated while the latter passed. Cosson, who is gay, says the play does not shy away from those bitter flash points. “It’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt when they are fighting to impinge on your freedoms,” he says.

But according to Cosson and the play itself, the beauty of Colorado Springs lies in the many collisions that are taking place. The Air Force Academy lies within the same city limits as Colorado College, known for openly challenging the laws against pot-smoking; the radical alternative paper hosts a column written by a New Life pastor, while its editor is invited to speak at the church; Marcus Haggard, son of the disgraced Ted Haggard and a new generational leader, attended both hyper-conservative Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma and Colorado College. The distance between Manhattan and Salt Lake City is vast; here it’s measured in blocks.

Cosson says that at the end of the Civilians’ residency, the company hosted a workshop production, talk-back with the audience and cast party, and invited several individuals represented in the play. The response from the invitees, he says, was positive to both the production and the party. At the talk-back, however, the first audience member to speak accused the company of white-washing problems created by the evangelical community. The second said he thought the Christian right was unfairly represented. “Sounds like we got the right balance,” Cosson says.

“This Beautiful City,” Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Opens Sunday. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. $20 to $45. (213) 628-2772