Performing Arts: Theater
May 30, 2016
As you receive your ticket to Bible Study for Heathens, the box office manager points you to a graph where you are invited to draw a self-representing symbol along perpendicular axes of belief and practice – Cartesian Faith. Once ascended to the choir loft of Judson Church, you can contribute to a sand mandala before taking your seat, at which point the neighbor-greeting is well underway. A trilogy of logical, impermanent, and social contexts of spirituality warms up NY Neo-Futurist Yolanda K. Wilkinson’s marathon through ten religions.

Joey Rizzolo directs Wilkinson in environments that shift radically through simple means. Crude sensory aids allow each scene to mirror the faith discussed, as in Wicca, lights are cut, leaving Metallica to demolish an organ’s lull by electric candlelight. Such coarseness helps to get points across immediately where scenes are short and manifold.

Additionally consistent are Wilkinson’s lucid post-hoc reflections of her misunderstandings in each phase, delivered, however, in the sentiment of the time. As a young Presbyterian she describes believing taking communion turned her into Jesus with the perplexed wonder of actually feeling divine. Keen insights then emerge, highlighting suppressed female figures to expose religion’s misogyny- reinforcing appropriation as well as cross-cultural faith fusions as Western imperialism.

Still, the piece is structured as a Christian service – an expression of how Wilkinson came into faith, how it grounded her experience of other faiths, and ultimately how difficult it is to ever fully escape. The program is referred to as a missal. Stagehand Connor Scully is an altar boy. Wilkinson lectures on Scientology as long as we put money in a traveling tithe basket. In expressing the Greek practice of pre-performance libations honoring Dionysus, she takes communion – over and over again.

The joke becomes poignant when, lamenting on being unable to understand Buddhist chant, Wilkinson turns to the Lord’s Prayer, and has us all join in. It somehow works, compared to her earlier attempt at the Apostle’s Creed, floundered by line two. Participation is relentless. Intended audiences, educated and cynical, may be hip to this, but power is no more tangible than when such an audience cannot remove themselves to recite the words to a prayer from a satirical distance. Despite an externally episodic setup, Wilkinson revisits charged areas of her life as she travels from faith to faith. This yielding to humanity, present in each phase of her journey parallels the most pivotal participation: a single spectator reading the golden rules of every religion – loving neighbor as self, present in each phase of humankind.

Heaviness is offset by referential humor. Wilkinson prides herself on the Defense against the Dark Arts professor she could be after changing the names in an angel summoning with those of the Beatles. Theatrical artifice indicts artificial ritual – Wilkinson’s ultimate protest. To combat, she ends with a communion of unusually fine bread and wine (“Jesus is tomato basil tonight”), inviting us to honor that which inspires us to go the extra mile – to live well and allow others the same.
EYE ON THE ARTS< NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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