Scratching that itch

The staging of Lucas Hnath’s (pronounced NAYth) gripping play The Christians calls for a choir of 18 singers to sit behind a pulpit, arranged in two rows, throughout most of the play’s action, sing a few pieces and act as a church choir would during Sunday morning worship. Some carry Bibles that they consult to respond to specific references made by the pastor and his associate.

In this play, the audience becomes the congregation of a megachurch whose pastor, played by actor Joey Collins, preaches a controversial sermon that calls into question some of the congregation’s most fundamental beliefs. It’s a gripping drama that leaves the viewers pondering their own beliefs and feelings.

Chapel Hill’s outstanding Playmakers Repertory Company is presenting this play just now in repertory with David Ball’s adaptation of Moliere’s Tartuffe, a comedy centered on the use of religious piety to gain wealth and status. The versatile Collins shifts gears to play the principal role in Tartuffe. He’s joined in The Christians by Nemuna Ceesay, Jeffrey Blair Cornell, Alex Givens and Christine Mirzayan, all superb actors. Preston Lane directs.

When local churches were invited to provide singers for The Christians’ stage choir, I eagerly volunteered. As of this writing, I have been privileged to participate in eight performances. What a delicious opportunity. Theater has held an important place in my heart and soul since I was 11 years old and played a minor role in a minstrel show. The intervening decades have found me studying in a professional theater arts school, acting in and directing professional and amateur companies in Baltimore and South Florida, acting and singing in musicals in North Carolina, and reviewing plays for The Miami Herald’s Broward County editions. Once bitten by the theater bug, one never seems to grow weary of scratching its persistent itch.

Sitting in the choir for multiple performances of The Christians has provided me with a front row seat to witness the work of fine actors bringing a well-crafted script to life. One fascinating reality unperceived by audiences is the subtle ways that performances vary  from one night to the next. The pace might be a bit slower or quicker, the energy level higher or lagging a bit, the tension more electric, or a bit less. One or more actors might play a scene with more passion than he or she did the previous night.

It’s all good. Playmakers deserves its reputation as one the nation’s outstanding regional theater companies, and for a few weeks, I get to witness its excellence from the best possible vantage point, on the stage. I have two remaining performances in the stage choir for The Christians, and we have tickets to see Tartuffe this weekend. Can’t wait.

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