Sunday, June 14, 2009

Play's version of Springs is not all 'Beautiful'

By Brandon Fibbs
Special to the Gazette

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Colorado Springs, or one version of it, took the national stage this week, as a documentary-style musical about the city's evangelical movement premiered in the Studio Theatre.

Turns out, for many Washington theatergoers, "This Beautiful City" was a comedy and a horror show.

Chloe West, whose unabashed laughter filled the theater throughout the night, summed up many people's feelings.

"I knew Colorado Springs was a gorgeous place, but that's pretty much all I knew," she said. "After seeing the show, yeah, I am a little scared. Would I ever want to live there? Probably not."

That version of Colorado Springs came compliments of The Civilians, a New York City-based theater company that attempted to take a snapshot of American evangelicalism, using Colorado Springs as a microcosm of the nation.

"The Civilians specialize in doing work about real-life subjects, and I wanted to do a play about evangelical Christianity," said Steven Cosson, the show's director and co-writer. "I thought our method and the subject matter would be a good match. We were interested in Colorado Springs in particular because the story there is so unique. The city has changed so much over a period of 25 years with the influx of so many churches and evangelical organizations."

In 2006, the cast and crew spent seven months in the Springs interviewing more than 100 residents.

"We were trying to listen to the voices that were most alien to us - the evangelicals," co-writer Jim Lewis said. "We knew we could pull off (the liberals). We know them. We get that sensibility. So we really made an effort to get the evangelical argument out there and see if we could capture their point of view. The biggest challenge is juggling that balance."

While they were in Colorado Springs, New Life Church's senior pastor, Ted Haggard, became embroiled in a sex scandal involving methamphetamines and a male prostitute. Little did the company know at the time, but that incident would set the tone for its production.

"By reflecting on what happened with Ted, we are trying to get back to the larger questions of how a community heals and finds a way to get along," Lewis said.

The current rendition of the play - cast and crew say that the production is in a constant state of flux - draws nearly every word of its dialogue from interviews, media reports and local texts. There is no traditional plot to speak of, but rather a narrative represented by a series of talking heads sharing historical and cultural snapshots.

Embedded within the documentary form is music. One might be tempted to think this fusion of documentary sensibilities and cabaret gives the play a bad Broadway musical vibe. But the musical element is crucial, as its use is essential in the praise and worship services of the churches the production highlights.

The first half of "This Beautiful City" elicited the loudest guffaws as the D.C. audience was exposed to Colorado Springs' religious subculture.

They experienced a New Life church service in which the line between church and state was almost nonexistent, met local religious leaders, were serenaded by the Flying W Wranglers, chatted with Air Force Academy cadets and were introduced to prayer warriors who saw demonic forces around every corner. The principally liberal audience found the people and situations ripe for mockery.

Later, when asked of their impressions, audience members were happy to share. While some admitted to having never heard of Colorado Springs, a surprising number revealed connections to the Centennial State.

The smorgasbord of opinions represented a startling and insightful glimpse into how the city is viewed from afar.

Joyce Prashar, whose son lives in Colorado Springs, didn't realize the scope of the evangelical movement in the city.

"That was a complete mystery," she said. "The whole Christian right thing is slightly frightening to me. It reminded me of Jim Jones and Guyana."

Elizabeth Kramer found the play "truthful and terrifying at the same time." She was offended by what she saw as an evangelical invasion. "If they want to do what they want to do, that's fine. But stay out of politics."

"Before the play, I always thought of Colorado Springs as a pretty place - healthy, you know, with no religious connotations," Susan Janney said. "Now, I'm like, whoa. I think I'd research the place before I'd ever even visit. It sounds like a scary place to be."

Janney's comments caught the ear of Ben Weitz. "What's scary?" he asked, incredulously. "Colorado Springs? It's the nicest place in the United States that I have ever visited."

"I wouldn't want to judge Colorado Springs from this one show," said West, adamantly insisting that a play was not a fair snapshot of the makeup of any city. "I'd definitely want to visit, check it out. It's not as if there aren't churches just like that out here, too."

Elaine Chan has a unique perspective given that both of her sons attended Colorado College. "The play was very amusing for me because so many things were exactly as my sons have told me," she said.

However, she was also quick to point out that she thought the play was "a caricature of what people on the outside would think of Colorado Springs."

Some of the characters may border on caricature, others concurred, but the stereotypes were hardly unfounded.

"It's hard to get offended when they use the people's real words and points of view," Ezra Kauffman said. "I think people actually listen to what they say more."

Writer Lewis said when those interviewed during The Civilians' research saw an early performance, the reaction was overwhelmingly favorable. The religious audience thought it had been accurately portrayed.

After the play's revelation of Haggard's fall from grace, laughter seemed to catch in the audiences' throat. Those once so easy to denounce are shown to be wounded, confused and all too human.

Lori Kauffman insists she will never set foot in Colorado Springs. Still, she hardly sees the Springs as unique.

"I think if we look deeper, Colorado Springs is a microcosm of many places," she said. "(Evangelicalism) is just more concentrated, more overt, more exaggerated there."

"The key to the play was one line: ‘This is America,'" Sandra Weiswasser said. "Colorado Springs is the microcosm."

Weiswasser, who calls herself an avid atheist, found herself moved by the story, particularly the zeal with which the Christians lived their lives.

"When you listen to believers, there are still kernels of truth which resonate - the need for redemption and the need for forgiveness and that we're not perfect," she said.

"I don't want other people telling me how to believe. But on the other hand, if you're a true believer, how can you not tell others?"

At first, actress Emily Ackerman was not excited about the project.

"I was scared to go there. It was the Hate State. Jesus Springs. I thought, ‘Whoa, this place is crawling with hateful, hurtful people,'" she said.

"And then I got there and found out that was not necessarily true. There certainly are elements that I, as a liberal, disagree with very strongly, but for the most part they were really welcoming and open and loving."

Many audience members believed the play did a fabulous job interpreting one group of people, but nonetheless plucked only the low-hanging evangelical fruit. Some of those interviewed said they yearned for a more balanced view.

Although the play features opposing voices - a gay man fighting discrimination, a transgendered city planner and a disgruntled native who hates how the city has changed around him - Lewis said that "if we get complaints, it's always that we bent over too far to give the evangelicals a voice at expense of other liberal, secular voices."

Ackerman was moved by those in Colorado Springs who consider themselves part of the liberal, secular resistance.

"The liberal community in Colorado Springs is very, very strong. They feel like they are fighting a war. They are a whole lot more liberal than we are. We have the luxury of being liberal New Yorkers where everyone agrees with us."

Audience member Kauffman said she sees "This Beautiful City" as an "important play for a jaded, political place like D.C., where we basically make fun of everyone."

Despite differences with the evangelicals who make up the play's subject matter, she said she feels that only good can come of the dialogue.

"There will be very few evangelicals who come to see this show and that is wrong; they really should come," she said.