Oh, these crazy contemporary English playwrights, always messing with us one way or another and making us feel like wet-behind-the-ears Colonial idiots. Prime example Howard Barker, who created a movement called Theater of Catastrophe, plunks his nasty, alienating scenarios into historical settings the U.S. public schools tend not to touch on (so for all we know, he's making the whole freaking thing up), celebrating pain and tragedy as he shares his ambiguous yet horrible creations with audiences. I think I like him a lot.
When you're watching a show that makes you feel as though you're in grad school (not necessarily a bad thing), it helps a lot if the company presenting it is smart as a whip and really passionate about the experience everybody's having, so hooray for Space 55 Theatre Ensemble, who's doing a swell job with Barker's fascinating and troubling The Seduction of Almighty God in its U.S. première.
Signs outside the auditorium warn that your evening of Seduction will include nudity, violence, profanity, and incense and mist (that theatrical foggy stuff that's supposed to be innocuous but sets off fits of mass-hysterical coughing in some audiences). I'm not the most chemically sensitive person in the world, but the incense at Space 55 smelled nonsynthetic and sort of campfirey, not like a bunch of cheap, heavy faux-hippie crap. The effects were subtle and organically relevant to the playgoing environment, and no one else in the audience appeared troubled by them, either.
Specifically, the events of Seduction take place in 1539 in a European monastery that's about to be both literally and figuratively dismantled, as many were, by greedy and undevout governments. Burlap-clad monks begin the show by ceremoniously lighting and extinguishing candles and censers, and the atmosphere takes on a cloistered, otherworldly feeling. It's easy to imagine yourself in a cavernous, leaky old edifice, imperfectly heated by wood fires, counting down your days with a mere handful of remaining fellow friars, far from the outside world's meager pleasures and increasingly far from your original calling.
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That's the world into which a desperate teenager named Loftus (Jordan Tompkins) flees, hoping to find an outlet for his unwieldily huge religious fervor. If you think Loftus is in for a rude awakening when he finds out that monks are people, too, wait until you see the surprises he has in store for them. (Nudity, violence, and profanity ain't the half of it.)
One of Barker's annoying limey tricks is to give characters names they don't get called by much (if at all) in the script, so I hope the program lists the actors in order of appearance, because I'm sitting here asking myself "Penge? Cooter? Really? What happened to Brother Michael and Brother Anthony?" Fortunately for all of us, the entire ensemble here is more than competent, so it's unnecessary to pick individuals out.
Director Boyd Branch is a treasure, and I hope we get to enjoy his work in the Valley for many more years. I also love the uncredited costumes that I saw the whole company putting opening-night finishing touches on in the cafe/green room. (The outfits are the hottness -- except for the monks' robes -- and they blend modern and timeless in a chic and appropriate way.) This show is weird as hell, but funny and life-affirming in unexpected ways, and I think anyone with a spirit of adventure will get something out of it.
The Seduction of Almighty God runs through Saturday, May 30, at Space 55, 636 East Pierce Street. Tickets are $10; call 602-663-4032.