Sunday, August 10, 2014

Thinking Cap Theatre Company: Church (4 Reviews)

churchThinking Cap Theatre Company opened its production of Young Jean Lee’s Church in a tent in the parking lot the still-under-conversion Vanguard Sanctuary for the Arts on August 8, 2014.

Let Thinking Cap convert you into a theatre lover with the Florida premiere of Church by Young Jean Lee. 

In the true spirit of experimentation, this will be a site-specific performance fashioned like a "tent revival" and held outside under the stars. Don't miss this truly unique production!
In Church, acclaimed playwright Lee presents a dramatic rendering of an exuberant spiritual service that will appeal to religious and non-religious individuals alike. A charismatic preacher and three female reverends will take you on a journey that is by turns funny, musical, jarring, and ultimately moving. Never content with simple parody, Lee's ambitious aim with Church is to give her audience an authentic experience of theatrical faith.

Nicole Stodard directed a cast that included Vanessa Elise, Carey Brianna Hart, Ann Marie Olson, Scott Douglas Wilson and Sabrina Gore.  Musical direction by Bill J. Adams.


Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:

Thinking Cap Theatre’s regional premiere of Young Jean Lee’s play Church may not be everyone’s cup of sacramental wine, but bring an open mind and savor a thought-provoking, exuberant even entertaining evening.

Lee, producing artistic director Nicole Stodard and musical director Bill J. Adams have required their cast and musicians to invest completely in these evangelists who devoutly believe and want to share the joy they have found because of pure altruism. The cast has not let them down. Not a single performer, no matter their personal beliefs, can be caught winking for a milli-second. They give themselves to their characters with the same kind of abandon that their characters have exhibited in giving their lives to God.

No one exemplifies that so much as Scott Douglas Wilson as Preacher Jose, the genial emcee and spinner of spellbinding modern parables.

The tone carefully cultivated among the cast by Stodard and Lee is not one of smug paternalistic knowledge, but of passion. That passion is especially evident in the testimony of one of the beaming faithful played by Ann Marie Olson who relates her journey through a hellish past with her round eyes blazing. Similarly, Vanessa Elise delivers a brief but chilling tale that spills out of her mouth in a whitewater torrent of words that summon up insane surrealistic drug-induced visions. Carey Brianna Hart’s evangelist may be more conventional but no less convincing.

Stodard carefully builds the show as any director would from a laid-back get-together to an occasionally scorching crescendo.

Music is a key component. A 15-minute pre-show may be the most rousing kick-butt warm-up of any production this season including familiar tunes given an injection of rock sensibility such as “This Little Light of Mine” and a punkish vibe on “Over The Rainbow.” The entire cast has fine voices but “choir director” Sabrina Lynn Gore and Olson set the ad hoc congregation on its heels with their power and skill.

No one can blame you for not being intrigued by the description of the show. But if you dress in loose clothes, bring a hanky to wipe your brow and use the hand fan provided with your ticket to cool off, you will likely be glad you took a chance.

Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:

Because Thinking Cap’s new home at The Vanguard, a former church on Fort Lauderdale’s Andrews Avenue, is still being renovated, the show unfolds in the style of a revival meeting under a tent-like canopy in the parking lot. The experience feels so authentic that the neighbors could be forgiven for thinking there’s worship going on in the ’hood.

But Church is indeed a play, one with lots of music and a little dance.

As Thinking Cap’s name suggests, artistic director Nicole Stodard is drawn to material that provokes thought, challenges assumptions and stirs discussion. Church does each of those things, doubtless inspiring some in the audience as it makes others uncomfortable.

The lead evangelist, Reverend José (Scott Douglas Wilson), is a hellfire-and-brimstone type... Often using the cadences of a sermon, Wilson soothes, confronts and berates his listeners in the play’s most powerful performance

Carey Brianna Hart is the nurturing but stressed-out manager who keeps the evangelical show on the road. Vanessa Elise invites prayer requests, then later delivers a mystifying story so fast that she seems to be speaking in tongues. Ann Marie Olson, who sings a glorious Amazing Grace at the top of the show, is the sinner-turned-believer, and Lee makes the details of her dark past truly creepy.

Fair warning to the heat-phobic: While staging this particular play in the Vanguard parking lot makes pragmatic and artistic sense, South Florida in August can be a little too evocative of Satan’s terrain. Cleverly, Thinking Cap’s program is printed on the back of a hand-held fan, but it provides about as much relief as a single ice cube in a steam room.

  Roger Martin reviewed for Miami ArtZine:

Church is normally performed in a large tent on the grounds of Thinking Cap’s new home, but moves to the Muse Center for the Arts when thunderstorms threaten. And last night the lightning was flashing so indoors we went. The crew toted the chairs and equipment a couple of blocks down the street, set everything up in just a few minutes and the show started almost right on time. Strong ceiling lights, (no optic ballet here). An inkling of the enthusiasm to come.

Written by the brilliantly imaginative Young Jean Lee, Church is a down home revival meeting. Revival of the spirit, that is. And as performed by Thinking Cap’s cast it is completely enthralling pure theatre.  Director Nicole Stodard’s notes include: “...No fourth wall? Completely immersive? Colossal subject matter? Yes!...”

Each of the four Reverends delivered stories of sin and redemption. All had hold of Young Jean Lee’s words and wouldn’t let go, living every tale. Scott Douglas Wilson as the Reverend Jose had the lead. In every way. Three sermons/tales/testimonials, call them what you will, were mesmerizing. His love of the material inspiring.

I had made a note: “This isn’t a play.” But of course it is, in the very best sense.

John Thomason reviewed for The Broward Palm Beach New Times:

Young Jean Lee, a hotshot South Korean playwright praised for her experimental approach to stagecraft, may be one of these postmodern ironists, or maybe she isn't. But her play Church, which premiered in New York in 2007, is certainly one of the most original approaches to the subject of a tent revival — and to theater itself — as you're likely to see. Outside its new home at the Vanguard, Fort Lauderdale's Thinking Cap Theatre has produced a perfectly calibrated Church that is as much a site-specific performance-art installation as it is an enjoyable retrograde variety show.

…you'll hear songs of praise, recitations of Bible verses, requests for healing prayers, and stories of personal transformation triggered by an acceptance of the Almighty, enacted with earnest immersion and a refreshing lack of condescension by three talented "reverends": Ann Marie Olson, Vanessa Elise, and Carey Brianna Hart, all performing under their own names.

But it's the charismatic preacher who breathes most of the oxygen into this collapsible chapel. For this, we have Scott Douglas Wilson, acting under the nom de plume Reverend Jose, to thank... Acting with his entire body and almost winking to us without ever succumbing to the temptation, Wilson delivers another outstanding performance. Peppering his parables with pregnant pauses of Barnumesque proportions, he approaches the character like a good adman, telling us why we're worthless until we buy his product.

Evangelicals may be bothered by the approach of Lee and this production's faithful director, Nicole Stodard, for the way they mock the minister's pomposity… But …it's difficult to be offended by Church… because the play is too scattershot to deliver a consistent message. Lee is not a polemicist so much as a mashup artist. Her tent revival is both a sly parody and a loving homage…

Perhaps Lee just loves the pageantry, the drama, and, yes, the theater of old-time religion. And in translating this vintage milieu with loving veracity, Stodard has given us a new kind of theater. Can I get an amen?


Thinking Cap Theatre Company presents its production Church through August 24, 2014.

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