RISE, scripted by Cal Barnes and deftly directed by Aaron Lyons, stars Brett Colbeth and Gowrie Hayden, actors fresh from the long-running hit Pulp Shakespeare (a staging of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction as if written by Shakespeare, its Wiki-script emerging from an open on-line collaboration). The cast are members of the newly-formed Zenith Ensemble.
The play begins with Henry Donner (Colberth), an ex-musician in jeans, t-shirt, hair pulled back in a neat ponytail, clutching a bible, grooving to inspirational Christian rock. Donner, we soon discover, is the popular pastor of the New Heart Church. Donner, using the audience as stand-in congregation, delivers an utterly engaging and earnest sermon, drawing on the Book of Job and Ezekiel 36:36, a passage that has Yahweh replacing hearts of stone with a new heart of flesh.
Along the way, we learn that Donner was once consumed by dreams of rock stardom and that a decade ago he was a lost soul filling the emptiness of his life with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. The most stirring passages of his sermon disparage selfish devotion to fulfilling one’s dreams of fame and fortune, and contrast hollow devotion to such false idols with the inner peace that (allegedly) comes from abandoning those dreams and giving oneself over to the Lord’s will.
Donner, aglow with love for all, is a poster-boy for rejecting the temptations of this world and discovering the greater joy of “walking with the Lord.” He even mocks those who choose their churches for their hipness factor –ironic, given that his New Heart Church may well be the hippest in trend-obsessed LA. It’s a damn good sermon, and Donner is so warmly charismatic and inviting that it’s little wonder he’s become such a successful pastor.
As Colbeth’s Donner concluded his ten minute sermon, asking us “Are you with me?” the atheist in me almost responded … until a gentleman in the front row shouted out, “Is this some religious thing or is this a play?” Colbeth was momentarily rattled. Then the gentleman asked, “Is THIS what your play’s about?” Now, in the world of the play, Donner/Colbeth’s in a strange trap: he can’t really answer the question and still stay in character, and if he doesn’t stay in character, the world of the play collapses. The gentleman stomped out, demanding a refund, his muffled exchange with the house manager providing interesting background “music” to the transition into the next scene, set a week later in Donner’s office.
Donner tells his secretary to send in a walk-in seeking pastoral counseling. Alexandra Riverton (Gowrie Hayden), the peroxided blond beauty who rolls into Donner’s office is surprisingly confrontational. She’s not buying Donner’s version of “good news” for an instant. She mounts such a surprisingly sophisticated counter-argument to his nostrums that there was a moment when I suspected that I was watching a smartly written modern mystery play in which the Great Deceiver has come to test the true believer’s naïve faith. Everything about her screams The Temptress; there’s cunning in her parries and ripostes. When she turns her attention to the story of Job – she heard last Sunday’s sermon – she mocks Donner’s explication of the parable. According to Alexandra, Job’s life was ruined and his family killed by a callous God whose only reason for subjecting Job to these horrors was to prove a point. When Donner asserts – faith, after all, does not require argument – that Job was ultimately rewarded for his enduring faith by being given even greater wealth and a larger family, Alexandra counters: What makes this new family any better than his old one? And do you think Job didn’t grieve the wife and children he lost?
Then it starts to get personal.
Donner keeps asking Alex what she wants, why she’s here, what she wants from him. Her answers are cryptic.
Conditioned by the clichéd narratives of TV, we’re teased to expect that she’s carrying some dark secret from their shared past. Sure enough, she is. But not quite the ones we – or he – expect. Rather play the “spoiler alert” game and risk ruining your experience of this fine play, the details of what happens next will be described only in the international version of this review
Rise is the most polished, narratively engaging, and morally complex play I’ve seen in the Festival to date. The show I saw was billed as a preview but felt as if it had been playing for weeks and whose actors had been living in the skins of these characters for their entire lives. By the way, the gentleman who walked out after the sermon, returned to his seat a few minutes into the second scene. I asked him afterwards if he was glad he came back. He said he wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Now that’s a positive review!