Fertile Ground Review: ‘Revival’ and ‘Dear Momma’

Two works from new playwrights share a church venue. Revival's Christian witnesses meet Momma's mystic cult.

REVIVAL

“I can’t believe you’re playing that!” rants Evangeline Noble (Bahar Baharloo), huffing into the sanctuary mid-song. “You’ll scare everybody away!”

“It’s in the Bible.” Saul Moises (Andrew Fridae) replies.

“What isn’t?” she fumes.

And just like that, Revival has hit upon the oldest dilemma of religious witnessing: how do you answer for the stauncher, more traditional tenets of your faith—especially those that you don’t choose to follow, or those that your scripture both asserts and contradicts?

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Dogma dilemmas

In the Bible, Christians are told to “judge not,” but to “ask for good judgment.” They’re instructed to love God, but also to fear him. Not to mention gay sex’s oblique connection with Levitical shellfish, the old testament’s bloodlust versus the new testament’s neighbor-love, the edict to “render [your taxes] unto Ceasar” despite the seeming endorsement of a drifter lifestyle, without home or belongings.

“That sounds crazy to me!” laughs the Reverend Isaac Noble (Josh Gulotta), avowing himself a moderate. But later on, he unleashes a Jimmy Swaggart-ish tirade of fire and brimstone, and his wife has to talk him down.

Gulotta’s ambitious Christian soul-searcher Revival is less a musical than a themed concert by folk band the Skidmore Bluffs, with dialogue in character taking the place of the usual between-song banter. The format is cabaret, but the trappings are pure worship service: modest bonnet-and-vest getups, acoustic original hymns, a small Northeast Portland church.

Sects appeal

The Bluffs wear Amish garb, call each other Puritan-sounding names, present as two married couples and a bachelor, and affect southern accents. Altogether, this seems like a curated pastiche of religious rigors that (believe it or not) may echo popular trend. Just try a quick web search of “Amish chic,” and you’ll see how mainstream fashion is embracing this “look.” Delve into the Decemberists catalogue and you’ll find that, post-pirate and pre-prog, they too went…if not full-on Nathaniel Hawthorne, at least a bit goody-plain. So the Northeast 1800s are a style muse (Really? Apparently). But the South is generally hailed as the cradle of charismatic worship…which may be why these kids preach with a variable twang, clippin’ gerunds while praisin’ Jesus. Though the ’80s were the last massive heyday for Southern preachers (See Swaggart and PTL Ministries), the Bluffs have rejected that era’s unholy mall bangs and mascara.

A joyful noise

The Skidmore Bluffs’ musicianship is impressive; their arrangements are lovely; their harmonies celestial. They play ukes, tambourines, guitars, piano, the saw…they even make exciting and apt use of saxophone solos. Their style is somewhat mutable, a stomp-clap white southern gospel with echoes of Magnetic Fields and Neutral Milk Hotel. The sparkling Bahar Baharloo is not listed among the group’s regular members, (perhaps a last-minute substitution, as she was in last year’s Ribbons of War at Shaking the Tree) but she’s a great conduit of performance energy, even through a frowsy brown dress, bonnet, and pregnant belly. The subtler Bronwyn Maloney harmonizes wonderfully and sings a  tender, nuanced solo in a piece that quotes a letter from John the Evangelist. It’s equally clear that Gulotta has done his homework on the cadence of preachin’, his voice booms with conviction and simmers with suspense. And his fellow performers never break character or flag in their enthusiasm, though they occasionally stray from their southern accents. Overall, this show’s aural offerings are well-paced, varied, and entertaining.

Custom-fit faith

“Christ was God made man, and to err is human,” suggests Isaac (Gulotta) before a song that paints Jesus through “his roommate Lazarus’s” eyes as a hippie friend who “always had hash.” Another reference to sitting in a Ford Fiesta smoking weed solidifies the pro-partying narrative.

“Bless ye children of God, and Allah, and L. Ron Hubbird too…and athiests for makin’ us for once in our lives talk real,” sings the quintet, but later mentions that God made the world in six days.

“Send a savior today, oy vey!” is a contradiction within itself.

“I’m so sick of judgin’ others and pretendin’ that’s carin’ for ’em!” declares Evangeline (Baharloo), repeating a “judge not” refrain that recurs throughout. Yet songs like “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” rewritten as a plea to someone named Michael to give up his drug habit, hint at, erm, discernment to say the least, as well as undermining the aforementioned Fiesta behavior.

The Bluffs (or their evangelist characters) seem absolutely in earnest—but earnestly uncertain, as though the only doctrinal imperatives they can settle on are charm and ambivalence. Still, the charm is contagious, the performance is uplifting…and the message seems about on par with modern liberal Christendom: come as you are, and believe whatever you want. The show continues through February 8 back-to-back with Dear Momma at The Little Church.

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DEAR MOMMA: A LOVE LETTER

It could’ve gotten heavy. It could’ve gotten ugly. It was more than likely to be maudlin or egocentric. The story of a child observing and reflecting on her mother’s tortured life and untimely death, complete with indoctrination and excommunication from a cult, as writ by a fresh young theater grad, would seem to have “melodrama” written all over it. But instead, Megan Sweigert’s Dear Momma manages to paint a sensitive subject with a feather-light touch, manages to diffuse our attention across three different actors playing the same main character without confusion, manages to jump forward and backward in time at seeming random in a way that reveals memories in a suspenseful, engaging sequence.

Three “Megans,” one Momma (Olivia Shimkus), and one lover (Caitlin Fisher-Draeger) are the only characters. Megan 1 (Amanda Mehl) is a wide-eyed child version, delighted to live on a commune and then disillusioned to suddenly leave it. Her training in meditation and tree-climbing doesn’t translate to hers and Momma’s new apartment complex. Jeff Desautels is the teen Megan, a fun gender twist that gives his eyerolling over birds-and-bees discussions extra emphasis. Mariel Sierra is an exuberant, independent, but secretly troubled young woman Megan who finally seeks closure by returning to her mother’s former commune for answers, and by making an effort to trust her current lover. Rather than playing their story chronologically, the Megans take turns playing gradually more personal, more meaningful scenes. As they go, they each cue the changing of the guard in a word: “Poof!”, then announce their age before proceeding. Remarkably, this is enough to elucidate the narrative and keep the chronology perfectly clear.

There is little else to say about this workshop production other than it’s good; it already says what it wants to. Oh! Except: the show continues through February 8 back-to-back with Revival at The Little Church.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly Magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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