The setup: In theater, maybe even more than in the other performing arts, getting work or being successful (by whatever one's standard for that is) often seems to be a matter of luck and the accumulation of years of chance meetings. Brelby Theatre Company is currently presenting Ben Abbott's play Prodigy, through Saturday, November 16. The only reason the company knows of the script's existence is that a current Brelby actor still has his copy from a California reading some years back. "Something tells me it's not usually that easy," Abbott writes in his blog.
In the meantime, Abbott's developed a one-man ethnographic performance, Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity, which won Producer's Pick of last summer's Cincinnati Fringe Festival. He was able to visit the Valley to see Prodigy, and Brelby was able to offer him a midweek slot to share Questions of the Heart for a couple of nights: last night and tonight.
See also: PHX:fringe Opening Weekend: Confessions of a Mormon Boy and Schreibstück
While I was interviewing Abbott about Prodigy for New Times' Night & Day section, it became apparent that he's a compassionate, intelligent person who, having studied and worked as an actor and made tons of gay friends, became curious how the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the source of the faith community that he and his family find so fulfilling, could deny that love, joy, and fellowship to homosexuals -- to the extent that the church officially supported California's Prop 8 and got worldwide attention for being perceived as not just a little "weird," as he describes it, but hateful, which made him sad and even more determined to look for answers.
Abbott admits on stage that it was disingenuous of him, a heterosexual, seventh-generation Mormon, not to consider the issues of gay Mormons sooner -- why wouldn't gay children be born into Mormon families as often as any other kind of family? -- but that's the way people's lives unfold: We take a lot for granted until we can't avoid confronting it face to face. Which might be at just the time we've acquired the resources to address it.
And so this young actor/writer came to interview a dozen people for a master's thesis project at UC Berkeley that's since been reconceived, with the assistance of director Mark Kamie, to be more theatrical and less academic, and has now been presented three other places. The show's also slotted for the FRIGID New York festival in early 2014.
The execution: Abbott is a tall, gangly, good-looking actor who's equally affecting when portraying himself as when he slips into the personae of the people he interviewed. (He inserted himself as a character when Kamie helped him realize audiences needed some grounding in Mormon lifestyle and beliefs -- why it's a church people tend to be so conflicted about considering leaving.)
It's not a flashy, entertaining show per se but rather a way for a person who feels a personal call to promote human progress -- who believes that, as he quotes archeologist Howard Winters,
Civilization is the process in which one gradually increases the number of people included in the term "we" or "us" and at the same time decreases those labeled "you" or "them" until that category has no one left in it.
-- to present an unstinting overview of part of the world as it is and ask the audience to join him in making it better, stopping short of getting obnoxious about it. And it seems only fair, when reviewing QotH, to include some of the background material Abbott provides the audience with.
Technically (and Abbott is not the only person who explains it this way), Mormon doctrine does not support any non-marital sex acts by anyone of any orientation, and the only kind of marriage the church recognizes is the man-woman kind, with the more procreation the better. (More Mormons = more super-happy people with purpose for eternity.) Feeling same-sex attraction is not a sin -- having same-sex sex is wrong, but wrong on approximately the same level, in one sense, as a straight teenage unmarried couple giving in to temptation or a spouse committing adultery. All those acts violate the same tenet.
This is one reason that so many gay Mormons continue, in the 21st century, to go ahead and marry an opposite-sex partner (who often knows up front that he or she is marrying a homosexual) and have families. They honestly believe that God will help them have the strength to make that work. Many other gay Mormons stay closeted in order to preserve their satisfying spiritual life, many are still excommunicated under certain circumstances, many make the tough decision to leave the church, which leaves them isolated and injured, and far too many commit suicide.
In recent months, Mormon politicians and even the church itself have actively supported anti-discrimination bills. At the local level, individual wards (congregations) can be extremely inclusive and supportive, and Abbott dramatically shows what life is like for gay Mormons who don't belong to a ward like that.
In this refreshingly short show (just about exactly an hour, which is typical for a Fringe entry), Abbott has managed to insert a couple of awkward choices, but he carries the performance with his energy, sincerity, and candor. He starts on a light, accessible note, with the story of a group of Brigham Young University students who decided to make their same-sex attraction support group into a remedial basketball league. Because why? Well, being less terrible at sports would make it easier to have platonic friendships with straight men, which would make the group members less attracted to those man sexually. (Okay, it was worth a try.)
The man who told Abbott this story was his very first interview. He went on to say that he left the support group after four or five of his basketball buddies killed themselves.
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Another surprising and provocative segment shows a gay Mormon man confessing to his now-legal husband that he's been going to church again. It felt exactly like a man admitting he's been watching Internet kiddy porn or going to massage parlors.
Although Abbott's a good enough actor to make it clear whom he's playing at any given moment, the production element that gets him "in and out" of each interviewee is one of the odd things about the show. He talks over a recorded voice that gradually fades out under his own voice, which is effective on its own, but the execution of the effect is somewhat distracting. In one way, the messiness reflects the diversity and difficulty of the subject matter, but in the limited time Abbott has with us, it feels like kind of a waste.
The verdict: It's been a little harder than usual in the past couple of years to find offbeat, up-and-coming, Fringe-y theater in the Valley. Kudos to Brelby for creating this opportunity for Abbott and his show. They seem to be going places, and you won't regret getting out tonight to see why. Questions of the Heart: Gay Mormons and the Search for Identity closes tonight, Wednesday, November 13, at 6835 North 58th Avenue in Glendale. Performances of Prodigy resume Thursday. Call 623-282-2781 for tickets, $10, or order here.