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  • Jonathan Pitts

Questions and More Questions at Citadel Theatre



A review by Jonathan Pitts

The Christians by Citadel Theater, February 8-March 12, 2023 @ 300 S. Waukegan Rd, Lake Forest, IL. For tickets and information go to https://www.citadeltheatre.org/



One of the things I’ve always loved about theatre is the world or worlds they create in a production for the audience to experience as they go on the journey of the play. As soon as you walk into Citadel Theatre Company’s production of “The Christians”, an Obie award winning play written by Lucas Hnath and directed by Scott Westerman, it’s an instant immersion in the world of an active, spit shiny and polished active Christian church. From the amazing and well-done full stage state of the art 90 foot wide projection technology that screen videos used throughout the show, including a choir of 5 female singers; as well as a different video reflecting the audience back to itself; two big white crosses lighting the stage (these crosses also use different colors at different points to highlight different moods of the play’s action); a techie dressed in black and wearing a headphone moving things around in preparation for the church meeting; functional, yet prim and proper WASPy on-stage furniture; an acrylic podium from which obviously the pastor will speak to us the congregation. At that point, the show hadn’t even started, but I was all in. My big congrats to Film/Photography Director Ian Merritt, Set Designer Jonathon Berg-Einhorn, Costume Designer Mary Baca, Sound Designer Jonesy Jones, Props Designer

Patrick McGuire, and Stage Manager Jessica Greenhow for achieving this triumph on a non-downtown theatre budget.


Then the back of the venue’s door opens, and in walks a genial middle-aged man, played by Citadel’s Artistic Director Scott Phelps, waving to the crowd (no fourth wall here) and two or three steps behind him, a quiet unspeaking middle-aged woman, played by Ellen Phelps, also waving to the crowd. Clearly this is the minister and probably his wife, and they continue waving to the full crowd and chatting briefly with some members. It’s clear at this point, this is a church meeting in a moderate sized church, and we are the congregation. The world of the play and our roles in it, feels fully built.


Then, the pastor talks to us, introduces us to his wife, to the assistant minister, and the head of the board of the church. The pastor tells us about the 20 year history of this church started by him and his wife, and how now today, this church is out of debt as the building is paid for. It’s a time for celebration. Somewhere during this part of the play the on-stage videos show us the full size of the church and it’s congregation with hundreds if not thousands of parishioners. It’s now clear we are not in a neighborhood church but a mega-church, though one still probably in the suburbs.


The production of this play through this video has really raised the stakes of this world we’re seeing and a part of, as I take this production at its word that we the audience are in the world of a big mega-church.


He also tells us, besides the big news of being debt free, he also tells us that after going to a Christian conference and witnessing a tragic story involving a young man which creates a dark night of the soul for the pastor, that was resolved by a conversation with God. He tells us he has a new direction for his faith and their church too. This is a big one, that there is no hell and everyone, regardless of their sins, are going into the gates of heaven to be accepted by God. The script’s themes are revealed as we are in the realm of big questions: God, death, rebirth, punishment, forgiveness, Jesus, and the abyss.


And that’s where my problems with this production unfortunately start to come in. The performance by Phelps as the pastor, while he does have some fine moments, overall, the choices made by him, don’t reflect the charisma needed to be able to fill, preach, teach, connect, and entertain a congregation this size. I’m not saying he should be a fire and brimstone preacher, because clearly his version of this character is more a Charismatic Protestant than a Southern Baptist. But the choices the actor has made for his character miss the charisma of someone like Joel Olsteen and other mega-church ministers, preachers, and pastors of that ilk need to keep filling the seats and the coffers.

Phelps does a good job conveying his quiet faith and basic goodness, but he comes across like a

Lutheran switching to be a Unitarian, rather than a man who’s change of faith is creating so many

changes and losses that much like Willy Loman, he’s losing everything he has. In the script, his arc goes from a genial leader to a devastated man, but his performance does not match it. The pastor makes all his choices off-stage, so we only see the pastor after he’s made up his mind, so we aren’t shown moments of doubt, just quiet attempts at persuasion. By the time he reaches his end point in the play, I was also wondering about the choices made, if he’s not been desperate or sad during the play’s actions, why is he so tortured at the end? Why not show, he still chooses his new faith and just move on to whatever his God has in store for him. Either way, I certainly wanted more from the actor or a greater clarity and investment in the choices he made and found for himself.


I also struggled a bit with the performance of the assistant minister played by Manny Sevilla. At first, he seems very much like someone who was an assistant minister, chosen by his history and ethnicity to show how progressive the church is, but as we find out his story, it hints at something more dark and almost fanatical, that isn’t shown much in his even keeled performance. However, he does have a compelling monologue about the death of his mother, that his does a great job with, but I still wanted a little bit more. Where was his fear and horror over his mother’s decision to still “deny” Jesus even as she is dying, before he slams on the emotional brakes to now hate her and deny her a place in heaven that his face does show as he finishes his monologue?

That was also a problem I had with this script, two of the most important characters don’t have warts or defects. They’re just regular folks who happen to be pastors and men of God. The script tell us about their flaws, but like Oedipus tearing his eyes out off-stage, so do their bad moments happen off-stage, and unfortunately, the director and the two actors don’t supply the missing parts.


During a debate onstage between these two characters, the pastor grabs the video camera to keep focus by speaking into it. Yet, I wondered why they and the director didn’t go farther into the world they’ve made and shown us. If the video camera is that important to make this move, make it a challenge between the two characters, and have them come out into the audience, talking either to the video camera or to us, to raise the stakes of these moments instead of having general presentational stage blocking. It felt like a lost opportunity from the director. Once you broke the 4 th wall, you can’t put it back.


Another one of my struggles with the script is that for some unknown reason, it uses Story Theatre style self-narration by the lead character. I love Story Theatre, but in this play, it felt intrusive and odd. Maybe the director could have made a moment where we understand why this usage of Story Theatre narration is happening. The narration is all past tense, so does this mean we’re seeing a story or and an event that has already happened or is it happening now? If it’s past tense story we’re seeing, then where are we? We don’t get an answer. It’s just occasionally there interrupting the moment rather than adding to it.


As the wife, Ellen Phelps does a great job, from showing the faithful and silently supportive parts of her role in the church, marriage, and family, until she makes a big change driven from suffering to doubt to sadness to rage, all rooted in her faith, and she takes their daughter and leaves her husband and their fancy house. This scene was done with her on video and he acting to the video. Again, it was a very nice use of multimedia. This was in the script and the actor ate all of it and left no crumbs to quote Gen Z.


As the board president who’s also a dentist, Frank Nall does a nice job in being quietly bland,

institutionally supportive, then sly on the side, and then good with the knife to cut the cord between the preacher and the church, done with a quiet, this is nothing personal, all non-offensive way, that has nothing to do with forgiveness or redemption.

F

or me, the acting that surprised me the most and was wonderful, was Abby Chafe as the stage tech. For the longest time I thought she was just a regular tech crew that was included onstage by a director’s choice. As she moves never speaking around the on-stage video camera, there’s one point where the pastor speaks directly to the camera and in-directly to her, and she smiled in a way back to him that looked like for all the world like a techy on-stage acting helpful. But then, when her big reveal happens,and she starts speaking her concerns, questions, losses, and challenges by the pastor’s new direction, everything she does looks effortless, fully alive and rooted in her character.


There were also some nice video turns by the two stooges (uncredited) that hang with the assistant pastor, and the 5-woman choir played by members of Forte Chicago also did a lovely job with their singing, and their Greek chorus like reacting to different parts of the play. Yet even they leave the pastor.

Now, he’s all alone, a single spotlight on him, as the rest of the stage is in black. The video is replaying parts of what he and the other characters have said, and of his wife leaving him. During this part the video started glitching (first time in the show), so it seemed an unfortunate reality of using multimedia in smaller theater. As the spotlight fades out, the minister raises his arms and looks to the sky, and the stage goes black.

Then the most curious thing of the entire play happens. In the dark, projected on the back wall in green Matrix style font, two sentences from the script that are often repeated over the course of the play. This changed the meaning of the play for me. It immediately felt like Christian propaganda to me, and I found myself wondering if Citadel Theatre was a Christian based theatre. Because those two sentences from the play projected on the back wall changed the whole play for me and with it the world, I thought we were in, as well as the overall meaning of the show. I now took was and editorial comment from the director or the playwright that if you, like this character, stop believing in hell, you’re going to hell because as we’ve seen just how much the minister has lost (his wife, his family, his congregation, his job,and his God), that this too can happen to you if you don’t believe. In short, Christian propaganda.


In the lobby after the show, I had some spirited discussions about what the end of the play meant. A couple people didn’t even remember it until I brought it up. I shared my questions about whether this was Christian propaganda piece, and at the end of the play, where were we? In hell? In a purgatory like place? Inside the head of the pastor as he was reliving or ruminating on what has happened? Were these two projected sentences from the play’s script shown meant to reflect the voice of God? If so, why wasn’t God speaking at the start of the show or throughout the show to let us know God’s a character to in this play.


One person thought it wasn’t propaganda, but more a reflection of how difficult it is to make big

changes of faith. Another person thought it was about how difficult it is for anyone to truly

communicate with anyone, as that distance between two humans is always both near and far. I

wondered again, why did the director or playwright choose to put the last two sentences on the wall. To emphasize the meaning of the play? To comment on it? Also, why the green color script and Matrix like font? Clearly that was a directorial choice. It all made me reconsider the video glitches near the end of the show. Were they done on-purpose and if so, for what meaning?


This made me think even further of The Matrix, because in theory, you could even make the case that the pastor was lying flat in a glass cage somewhere in the Matrix with his life energy powering the Matrix, but that can’t be what the director or playwright wanted. It was all very curious to have such an editorial comment displayed onstage at the very end of the play without knowing or understanding the reason for the choice. At least Brecht tells us what he’s going to be doing, and not to believe in the characters or their actions, but instead to focus on the lessons we can learn from their behavior.


But good plays spark discussions and this play sure did spark some great post-show discussions. I’m grateful for that and the evening I spent at Citadel Theatre. Make no mistake about it, my musings aside,this is a good to very good show, well worth seeing, but it was aiming to be a great show and it missed.

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