Evidence of Music City’s love affair with the Lord is everywhere—from Word Books, Thomas Nelson Publishers and the Dove Awards to our many churches and religiously affiliated universities. Going to the theater to derive some insight into the role faith plays in our lives sounds like a splendid idea, yet all the earnestness plowed into Actors Bridge Ensemble’s new production faith/doubt can’t compensate for lack of substance.
Actual recorded faith testimonies serve as a springboard for the 14 scenes and four songs that make up this dramatic revue. A total of 17 writers and musicians, headed up by director Vali Forrister, contributed material. The production features rear-screen video projections, some cool lighting, a visually interesting set (which nonetheless proves confusing) and a cast of 14 (including musical director Tim Fudge) sporting plain black costumes that create a classically egalitarian look.
An opening tableau of Creation stories, “In the Beginning,” has a darkly mystical atmosphere that effectively alerts the viewer that things religious lie ahead. Then comes a big musical number, “These Hands” (co-written by Tony Kerr and Bill Feehely), which is a fine piece of contemporary Christian pop, if you like that sort of thing. (Think Up With People or the Mike Curb Congregation.) From there, the actors settle into what presumably are church pews, but look suspiciously like jury boxes, leaving viewers to wonder whether what they’re about to witness concerns celebration or judgment.
The following slice-of-life scenarios attempt to portray regular folks grappling with issues of faith in an assortment of settings. We get young people and old people from different cultures—even puppets—playing out so-called moments of epiphany, all wrapped in a blandly generic philosophy that never really probes what it means to live in a frightening modern world or how faith sustains hope or fortitude to a person at a spiritual crossroads.
In a nod toward current technology, one scene, “The Blogosphere,” scrolls an actual blog down a rear-projected computer screen while actors recite the same words. It’s an interesting idea that has little dramatic effect. And mocking Church of Christ narrow-mindedness, as happens in a scene called “Casual Corner,” is an odd inclusion in a work that claims to examine faith sensitively.
Though the cast features some talented actors, they fall victim both to the strangely bloodless writing and Forrister’s direction, which too often consists of stage left/stage right standing and spewing. Rachel Agee, normally a reliable comic performer, moves from early piety to a confused portrayal of a Tarot reader. Feehely and Chris Scheele often look uncomfortable, and their diction needs a brush-up. As the shaman figure serving as master of ceremonies, Rodrickus Springfield looks great in his robes, though his ultimate impact on the proceedings is negligible.
More positively, Alice Raver and youthful Ashley Davis project some perky charm (despite Raver’s weak attempt at a Kurdish accent). Rebekah Durham—a gifted actress in search of a director and a worthy role—delivers a few noble speeches. Pierre Johnson acquits himself with clarity in his brief turns. And Mike Beckham grabs a few laughs, offering probably the evening’s most coherent statement of theology: “Life’s a bitch, then you die.”
It’s not until the soulful Shonka Dukureh closes the show with Fudge’s original song, “Rise Up,” that truth and talent combine for something demonstrably moving. But even then, it’s Dukureh who’s carrying the day.
When it’s not naive, faith/doubt comes off as preachy, an odd outcome for a show that purports to show the blessedness of all faiths and creeds. Neither its obvious sincerity nor its focus on our most dearly held beliefs guarantees success. The show is long on uninspired storytelling and short on universal meaning.
More tellingly, faith/doubt has no edge. Or irony. The element of doubt, so critical to our understanding of the importance and power of faith itself, is never deeply explored. Instead, vital messages are wrapped up in rather prosaic fashion, and the attempts at serious humor fall short. “The Deity Game,” for example, is a potentially funny idea that’s handled with no more wit than a marginal improv skit.
faith/doubt attempts to tackle a hugely important concept, one screaming to be addressed with courage, intellectual fervor and openness. But, acting and directing problems aside, the script is only marginally successful at achieving its goal.
The opening-night audience rewarded the show with a standing ovation. Maybe they were cheering for God herself.