Cherie Messore Previews

First Look: ‘The Christians’ at Road Less Traveled Theatre

Church scandals always make headlines. But imagine what would happen if a clergy member proclaimed that there is no hell. Does that lead to other shocking declamations against  the Judeo-Christian belief system? What happens to the church community’s inner balance? Our reward system? Our nightly prayers? Or our favorite punitive, dismissive comment? Somehow “Oh, go to…..nowhere in particular” doesn’t exactly pack a verbal punch.

The absence of Hell – the place and the metaphor – is the basis for ‘The Christians,’ the upcoming show for Road Less Traveled Productions. Director Scott Behrend was attracted to the play because it takes a neutral stance on an inflammatory topic. “This is the second of (playwright) Lucas Hnath’s plays that we produced,” Behrend says. “His work tends to look at both sides of any issue in a pretty balanced way. I think it’s important that theater looks at all our dilemmas including our questions about faith. ‘The Christians’ takes an important look at how and why we choose to believe what we believe.”

Not one to shy away from complex or controversial topics, Behrend say, “RLTP has become known for provocative theater that engages the audience emotionally and intellectually. I think ‘The Christians’ is a great example of this.”

Preparing for a production like this –  that is sure to ignite passions and raise eyebrows –  is a complex and multilayered process. Dramaturg Katie Mallinson and the cast researched different perspectives. The cast also discussed their own faiths, an irony of sorts since RLTP’s home for the past few seasons is the former Christian Center, and a place where faith was probably oft discussed in probably very different ways.

The audience is also invited to engage beyond the performance, too. To help foster more in depth discussion behind the scripts, their words, meanings, and nuances is RLTP’s off-stage discussion series called OFF-BOOK.  These 30-minute discussions are moderated by local writer/actor Michelle Holden and are held in the lobby bar. With seating limited to 25 guests, this intimate ‘script club’ (guests are invited to read the script before attending, although it’s not mandatory, just like a bookclub) is a fascinating salon for 21st century theatre-based conversation. Behrend says OFF-BOOK’s discussion about the previous production ‘Disgraced’ (also a faith-based production) was a big hit. There’s no additional charge to attend but registration is required and the cash bar will be open. ‘The Christians’ OFF-BOOK night is May 16: to register, click here.

If OFF-BOOK is a form of participation theatre, ‘The Christians’ actual production is one Hallelujah away from a holy day of obligation. The production is set as a service in a mega-church, during the sermon, complete with a 12-person choir on stage that’s integral to the production. Acclaimed singer and music teacher Karen Saxon is the music director. Saxon was immediately drawn to production. “I read the script and loved the story,” she says. “I also latched on to the opportunity to include the music I grew up singing.”

The mega-church sermon setting with the audience as the congregants makes this a unique piece of theatre, according to Behrend. “The structure combined with the ideas and storytelling makes it a very theatrical but also very familiar evening. I think it has a central core dilemma that will keep our audience thinking about it for a long time after the production.”

Amen.

“The Christians,” a WNY premiere, runs April 27 to May 20. For more information, click here.

Promotional Consideration Paid For By The Theatre Alliance of Buffalo.