Disreal Productions

at the Neo-Futurarium

My mother and father . . . told me thoughts were the root of all evil action. You’ve got to pull them out like weeds right at the roots! –Romans 6:23

The Bible, God, the devil. It’s all bullshit! –Come With God

Stop for a moment and try to imagine a world without religion. Difficult, isn’t it? And as long as religion exists, debates will rage over its value. Strong religious opinions have inspired war, holocaust, and angry dinner conversations. Such strong opinions have also inspired Romans 6:23 and Come With God: A Blasphemy in One Act, two provocative new works by Chicago playwrights aimed at debunking Christian fundamentalism by showing the hypocrisies of faith.

Going to battle against the Bible is not an easy task. As in any war, you need a solid plan of action and a thorough knowledge of the enemy. Problem is, the Bible is an elusive enemy. Even among fundamentalists no two interpretations are exactly alike. So whose interpretation do you attack? In his program notes Alan Gold, author of Come With God, says, “To me, the bible is an old book full of contradictions with the moral authority of used toilet paper.” He’s chosen a rather easy target: fundamentalists who believe every word in the Bible is the incontestable truth.

Gold has also chosen a simple situation to play out his argument. When the play opens, Charles, a lonely single guy, has his hands down his pants and a Playboy unfolded on his lap. “I need a date,” he mumbles just as he hears a knock on the door. Outside stand David and Elizabeth, two shiny young Christians out to create converts. Charles invites them in, saying he enjoys letting proselytizers into his house to discuss the Bible.

David and Elizabeth’s very conservative church is associated with the Evangelicals for a Christian America, an organization trying to ban The Wizard of Oz from grade schools because it implies that change can come from within the self. Change, as David says, can come only from God. But Charles doesn’t agree. Underneath his open exterior he’s as rabid an atheist as David is a Christian. He’s studied the Bible cover to cover to find all its flaws. And he’s itching for a fight.

As their angry rhetoric flies, David and Charles grow more and more entrenched in their opinions; meanwhile Elizabeth remains sweetly quiet. When Charles asks her opinion, she defers to David. David then informs Charles that Elizabeth is only a novitiate and not well versed enough to argue theology. So Elizabeth becomes the prize in this battle of ideas. Her mind is still malleable, Charles realizes. What’s more, Elizabeth is a woman–and a woman is just what he’s been wanting.

So Charles uses his argument with David to seduce Elizabeth, and Come With God turns into a rhetorical battle fought by two unlikable guys for the prize of a virgin. Not an appealing situation. Gold makes it even more unappealing by introducing the Comic, a red herring of a character who tells crude sex jokes and basically slams every religion in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. By the end of the first act the argument has degenerated even further, into a sophomoric debate about sex versus religion.

In the second half Gold comes close to making a valid point about the danger of fanaticism–whether religious or atheistic–but his message is undermined by Roger D. Kurth’s lazy direction and the cast’s shallow performances. Neither Richard Montgomery as David nor Gregory Tatro as Charles offers any real sense that he believes in his ideas. And when Elizabeth reveals that she used to live on the street and occasionally sold her body for money, it’s a complete shocker: Jennifer Farrell listens, moves, and speaks like a sweet virgin. That’s unfortunate for Gold, because Elizabeth is supposed to represent the voice of reason. Once she starts speaking, her lines reveal that she does question her religion. She is also supposed to be strong enough to listen to Charles’s arguments but make her own decisions. Elizabeth is the one character who could put both these fanatics in their place. She represents a sort of hope, but the role has been so badly miscast that the hope seems paper-thin.


Transient Theatre

In Romans 6:23, playwright Thomas Wawzenek doesn’t argue against the validity of the Bible but attacks the premise that anyone can find eternal salvation as long as he believes in Christ: he provides thoughtful, entertaining portraits of three very different Bible-banging fundamentalists; a fourth character is the voice of reason. Wawzenek cleverly has the characters speak only in monologues directly to the audience, so we get each one’s viewpoint pure and undiluted.

A certain whimsy in Wawzenek’s script and his characters makes his critique easy to swallow, even quite convincing. Candy, a working-class housewife, finds God one day by reading a little brochure on the bus. She thinks God will help her find financial success and overcome her fears of driving a car and riding on roller coasters. Chuck, who was raised a Christian by staunch fundamentalists, sees sinners everywhere: people who read novels, drink too much coffee, go to movies, tell jokes, and even laugh. Reverend Chester is an ex-con who always wanted to be a man of the cloth. As he puts it, “Fuckin’ A, Jack! Priests were great!” They got respect. People invited them over for dinner. Told them their dirtiest sins. No seminary would take him, so he studied the Bible himself and “was ordained by God” while serving time in prison for shooting a man.

Candy’s husband, Marty, is the voice of reason. He manages a grocery store and works 12 hours a day, six days a week. He doesn’t have time for being born again or for understanding Candy’s newfound devotion. “Why do you want to be a Christian when you’re a Catholic?” he asks.

Their four stories build to an account of what happened when they all came together in a soup kitchen, one “good deed” led to another, and a homeless alcoholic ended up getting killed. The story they tell is a funny one, and a bit macabre. Each person has a different take, but the cuts from one person to another are too slow for the humor to really come across.

The faith of a true believer is difficult to portray. As in Come With God, the success of Romans 6:23 depends on the conviction of the actors. Wawzenek creates a group of colorful and believable characters. Steve Tanner as Chuck and Catherine Skillman as Candy were delightfully full of their own absurd faith. Michael Curtis as Reverend Chester and Billy Teichert as Marty were somewhat less convincing. They seemed more like cartoons of their characters than people who truly believed what they were saying. All the same, under the skillful and clear direction of George Tafelski, Romans 6:23 presents a thoughtful analysis of religious zealotry.