Monday, October 30, 2023

Five Fall Dramas 2023

As I have done frequently on this blog when I have seen a string of live theater productions in a short span, I am combining the five I saw recently into one post. 


Three of these are from the Kern Shakespeare Festival - the annual student run of fall plays at Bakersfield College. One more is the fall production at California State University Bakersfield, and the final one is from Stars Playhouse. 



The Winter’s Tale (Bakersfield College)


This play has a history for me. Way back in the day - 2001 in fact, when my wife and I were newlyweds, and also immediately after 9/11 - Bakersfield college put on this play. Hey, I even found an article in the Renegade Rip about it! Apparently, they paired it with As You Like It just like they did this year. Was it really 22 years ago? A few familiar names in that old production, who are still performing in local theater, like Cory (Richard) Geurtsen. My wife is pretty sure that Candice Zent was Hermione in the earlier production, and that sounds right. Brian Sivesind, now professor of theater at BC and director of the festival, was still a student, and played Leontes, if my memory serves. How time has flown. 


I won’t recap the plot and all that, because I already did so in this post, about the Globe Theater’s online production during Covid.


However, I will comment on the specifics of this production. Due to kid homework and class schedules, my own schedule with Symphony and a class I am teaching this fall, we had to see this (and As You Like It) on a Wednesday, and the only kid who could come with me was my youngest. She had a great time, and it was fun discussing the plays afterward. 


The costuming for this show was a bit interesting. It was “old fashioned” for lack of a better term, but not coherently of a particular era. (I’ll leave it to people like my wife to explain all the different styles used.) I would presume that as a community college, BC probably dug out whatever they had, and mostly attempted to keep “Sicilia” and “Bohemia” separated. 


Since The Winter’s Tale is set in a fantasyland of its own anyway, there is no right or wrong way to do the costumes, of course. 


Because of the inherent unbelievability of the plot, casting is important. The actors have to be able to sell the story, and the transformations. I thought that a number of actors did a truly outstanding job, so I will give them specific credits. (There are fairly large casts for both plays, and a lot of the students are new names to me, so I’ll just give everyone a pat on the back and say I thought the entire thing was good.) 


Trinidad (aka T. J.) Sandoval has been around a lot lately, from Stars Playhouse (in Tis Pity She’s a Whore) to last year’s Shakespeare at BC. He’s a real pleasure to watch in any role, and the contrast between Leontes in this play, and Jacques in As You Like It was fun. Sandoval is downright scary in his jealous moods, which meant he had to convince the audience of his true repentance and change. Which also means portraying the trauma of that transformation. 

 Hermione (Shelbie McClain) and Leontes (Trinidad Sandoval) in happier times.

Opposite him was Shelbie McClain, another veteran of the festival and actor-about-town over the last decade or so. It has been fun watching her grow over that time, and her Shakespeare characters have been quite good. (I am thinking of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and her gender reveal as Julia.) She brought some serious gravitas as the wronged wife in this play. I also give mad props for her work as the “statue.” She took a fairly difficult pose and held it impeccably until she could finally move. 


Paulina - one of Shakespeare’s most badass women - was played by Cody Ganger, the other theater professor at BC. (And also someone we have enjoyed for decades.) The only weird thing about this portrayal was that she had a blond wig -she has never gone blond in anything we have seen, so it just felt unexpected. I have nothing but good things to say about her acting. She is a true professional in every role she has been in. (A particular call out for A Doll’s House at Stars Playhouse - such excellent work.) 

 Paulina (Cody Ganger)

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Jaspreet Singh as Polixenes. I had seen him in smaller roles in non-Shakespeare plays, and he was good in an understated way. But I had never seen him in a lead role, and I had never heard him perform Shakespeare. And wow, it turns out that he seems made for Shakespeare. His diction was so perfect, it felt both like he was simply speaking the Bard’s words as everyday speech, yet also the musicality of the language was so apparent. It was, simply put, beautiful to listen to. And, again, delightfully understated. Where Leontes rants and rages, Polixenes is (mostly) the calm, rational adult in the play. (At least until his son threatens to marry a peasant, and in context, he has a right to be pissed.) My wife thought that maybe Singh either spent time in England, or his family did, but in any case, there was something of the the great British Shakespeare sound about him. I do hope to see him in more roles in the future. 


Polixenes (Jaspreet Singh)

Bakersfield College has every right to be proud of the work they are doing in the theater department - the quality of their productions has been remarkably high, particularly considering that most of the actors are students and very young indeed. 



As You Like It (Bakersfield College)


I believe the first Shakespeare comedy I ever saw live was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and our first official date was Comedy of Errors. The third, then, if memory serves, was As You Like It, with the aforementioned Cory (Richard) Geurtsen as Roselind. (She is still a joy to see in any production.) 


One of a few of the “pastoral” comedies Shakespeare wrote, this one perhaps draws the biggest contrast between the “real world” of the framing story, and the fantasy of “Arden” that forms most of the play. 


I won’t rehash the plot here either, because I already discussed it when we saw this play down at Theatricum Botanicum eight years ago. (This was long enough ago that my youngest didn’t remember the play.) Rather, I’ll just say two sets of feuding brothers, banishment, two young women on the run, not one but TWO jesters (a true jester and an anti-jester, one mights say), lovesick peasants, a ton of sex jokes, great speeches, much hilarity, and eventually reconciliations. 


One thing the play does not, have, however, is magic. It’s all a very normal sort of craziness. 


The setting chosen for this production was, fittingly, the Summer of Love. Arden is indeed a hippie paradise - Shakespeare is timeless for a reason, right? The old duke and his followers were dressed in great (and occasionally ludicrous) costumes, there was a lot of signing and guitars, and references to weed. 


In fact, the songs were a particularly delightful part of the play - from The Times They Are A Changin’ to….wait for it….wait for it, Sweet Rosalind. Eat your heart out, Neil Diamond! Jesse Magdaleno, as Touchstone, hammed this up to the hilt. Actually, his whole performance was a gas, from his whining about the court and the luggage to his ludicrous pursuit of Audrey. (He’s also a friend of one of my kids, and did a nice turn in a completely different vein in Electricidad. (See below.) 

 Orlando (Jose Magana) and Touchstone (Jesse Magdaleno)

Trinidad (T. J.) Sandoval took on the equally crucial role of Jacques, the anti-jester, with the best known speech of the play, “All the world’s a stage…” 


Riss Halbwachs made her Shakespeare debut as Rosalind, and overall did well, although she’s not quite there with the challenge of impersonating a young man. (It’s tough, for sure, which is why I was so impressed with Geurtsen’s performance back in the day, and later Willow Geer.) That said, good diction, solid stage presence, and outstanding for a first timer. 

Celia (Alana Edwards), Rosalind/Ganymede (Riss Halbwachs), and Corin (Jaspreet Singh)

Those three characters are the ones that matter most in this play, in my opinion, but good work from the rest of the cast, both the old pros and the young students. I’m not the only one to say so: indeed, my friends who actually act locally were also impressed with the work done by BC this year. 



Electricidad by Luis Alfaro (Bakersfield College)


I was quite intrigued by this play, and am glad I was able to attend its limited run. I had not yet seen a play by Luis Alfaro, although his name and reputation were familiar to me. This is one of a trio of Greek plays that he has re-worked and updated for a new generation. (The others are Oedipus El Rey and Mojada - based on Oedipus Rex and Medea respectively.) Electricidad is based on the story of Electra, although it differs enough from all of the three ancient versions (by Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides) that I am not entirely sure that a particular version was more inspirational than the others. 


The story of Electra comes in the middle of Aeschylus’ trilogy of the family of Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus. As one might recall, Menelaus “won” the lottery to get to marry the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. Who then was kidnapped (or ran off with - take your pick) with Paris, thus triggering the Trojan War. Because of the oath the various suitors for Helen’s hand took at the time (Odysseus’ idea, by the way), they all had to go defend Menelaus’ honor. 


Agamemnon got to be the leader, because he was, well, the older brother of Menelaus, a fighting badass, and so on. But things started out poorly. For reasons which vary depending on the version, Artemis gets pissed off at the Greeks, and refuses to provide a wind so they can sail for Troy. 


In order to appease her, Agamemnon sacrifices his young daughter, Iphigenia. (In some versions, she is sacrificed by devoting herself to Artemis, rather than being slaughtered. Electricidad puts her in a convent.) 


This sacrifice makes Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra a bit angry at him, to say the least. Also, while Agamemnon is gone for ten years fighting that stupid war, she gets lonely and takes Agamemnon’s hot cousin for her lover. 


When Agamemnon comes back, trailing poor Cassandra (now his sex slave and the mother of a couple of his children), Clytemnestra and her boy toy murder Agamemnon. This story is the first of the trilogy, Agamemnon, which I read a few years back. 


Well, now you have a problem, though. This murder requires revenge, right? 


Enter Electra. She is the oldest of Agamemnon’s children, and, arguably, the smart one in the family. When it becomes clear that her mom has taken up with another guy, she realizes that her baby brother, Orestes, looks like an obstacle to be “dealt with.” She sends him off to learn how to be a man, and keeps her head down for a while.


After her dad’s murder, she plots revenge. Orestes comes back, now all grown up, and she convinces him that he needs to kill his mother and her lover. And she may be right - they stand in the way of his rightful throne, and would probably not hesitate to off him as well. 


It is no spoiler to say that Orestes (with help and encouragement from Electra) kills his mother and her lover. And then is pursued by the Furies, because, well, a boy really oughtn’t kill his mummy. For reasons I don’t quite understand, Electra appears to get off scot free, and later marries her brother’s best friend. Which, of nothing else, shows that she is a bit smarter than the rest of her family. (Unless you follow the version of the story where Iphigenia becomes Hecate…) 


This story is the middle play, The Libation Bearers, as well as the Electra plays by Sophocles and Euripides. 


The third volume of Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Eumenides, is the final act of the story, where the gods finally have had enough, and end the cycle of violence and revenge. In its historical context, it is a powerful argument in favor of the shift from “justice” being a matter of personal revenge to being a matter for the law to handle. Indeed, one of the great moments in human history, and a turning point in the decline of violence we have seen over the last 2500 years. 


All that to give some background, I guess. 


Electricidad follows the basic plot, but instead of focusing on the specifics of how Orestes murders his mother - there is a conspiracy to make it happen - it instead explores the family dynamics and the psychological states of the various characters. 


Alfaro sets his play in the barrio of southeast Los Angeles, where he was born and raised. Instead of tribal kings, he uses gang leaders. Which, if you think about it, is pretty much the same thing. The same honor culture, the same dependence on violence, the same machismo. The psychological landscape translates exceptionally well. I saw so many fascinating parallels between the Alfaro’s vision, and the original myths. Alfaro tied in a lot of details from the original in ways that were unexpected, at least until you saw them, and then they were so obvious and inevitable. (That’s some great writing there.) 


Starting with Clemencia (aka Clytemnestra), Alfaro re-examines her story from a different angle. Like in the original, she was “taken” by Agamemnon (I forget his name in Electricidad - he is already dead, so he isn’t in the program) - in the original by being bought and sold as women were, in the new by being seduced/raped as a young teen. She is beaten by her husband, and relegated to a subordinate role. Which is something you could see Agamemnon doing - his boorish behavior is what causes the quarrel with Achilles that nearly costs the Greeks the whole war.


In this play, there is also the dynamic that Clemencia sees Electricidad as the reason she was trapped with Agamemnon - she got pregnant. So she kind of loves Electricidad, but also resents her, particularly since she favors her father. In any case, Clemencia is complicated. Is she a villain or a victim? 


Electricidad (Electra) is also complicated and problematic. She is weirdly obsessed with her father - her mother points out that it almost sounds incestuous - and not only steals his body from the mortuary, but sits vigil with it in the front yard for weeks. She also has set herself on revenge so thoroughly that she isn’t a particularly likable character. One is left at the end with the feeling that murdering her mother hasn’t made her feel any relief. 


Orestes is the tender-hearted young man who wants so badly to be a fighter and a leader like his father, but his personality isn’t like that. In a better world, he would escape the barrio and live a peaceful life. But he is too easily led, both by his mentor Nino, and by Electricidad. 


Iphigenia could perhaps have been a sympathetic character, but instead, she has become a bit of a religious bigot. Embracing her life in the convent could have made her more compassionate, but for all her talk of forgiveness, she is unable to extend love. 

 Ifigenia (Savanna Lux) and Electricidad (Laylah Lievana)

Rounding out the family is Abuela, the mother of the deceased, who is somewhere between comic relief, a stabilizing force, and utter chaos. 


There are also three women with brooms who function as the chorus, commenting on the action, setting the stage, and all the other stuff the chorus does in the Greek originals. They could also be seen as the equivalent, perhaps, of the Fates - sweeping the destinies of men instead of weaving them. Or, perhaps the three Furies who will eventually pursue Orestes. 


The set for this play was outstanding, capturing the feel of the barrio quite well. (I grew up in a neighborhood that wasn’t quite barrio, but was primarily Hispanic and working class. So some of the jokes - and the Spanglish - took me back there.) 


I’ll also mention the actors a bit. Laylah Lievana as Electricidad gave an emotionally exhausting performance - a true tortured soul. I think she could have slowed down just a bit, but she is young, and the nerves will settle down with practice. However, her emotional energy was impressive. 


Savana Lux played Iphigenia properly stiff and tightly wound, the girl with a prison record who is trying a bit too hard to be good. 


Clemencia was played by the one veteran actor, Cristina Goyeneche (who also directed), who I think owned the stage in her scenes. And good god, what a horrible mother. She knew how to cut each of her children the deepest way possible. To act that level of toxic malevolence had to have been both fun and challenging. 


I rather loved Vanessa Beltran as Abuela, and Daniel Ramos as Nino. Both were much-needed comic relief, and their decision to slip away and bonk near the end was sold well. (Nice to see the older characters get some fun too.) 


Jesse Magdaleno played Orestes completely differently than his Touchstone in As You Like It. He has a range of acting talent, and is one to watch in the future. His Orestes felt vulnerable and fragile, and one could see the the Furies that will pursue him will be more in his own shattered psyche than anywhere. 


And finally, Marissa Garcia, Margarita Alcala, and our longtime friend Selah Gradowitz were delightful as the chorus - great chemistry between the three of them. 

 The Chorus (Selah Gradowitz in center. Others are Marissa Garcia and Margarita Diaz Alcala)

Again, a really excellent production, and an outstanding play. Alfaro can really write - he captured the spirit of the original while making a completely different (but…not that different) world come alive. 



Our Dear Dead Drug Lord by Alexis Scheer (Stars Playhouse)


This is the only one of the five I saw that is an entirely modern play. It’s only a few years old, but seems to be in multiple productions in California. (Things go in cycles around here.) In any case, I decided to go see it, in part, because of the content warning: you don’t see “simulated witchcraft” too often. 


Some background here: I was raised in a Fundamentalist home - one that became increasingly Fundie and restrictive as I got older. As I have blogged about before, when I was young, we did the trick-or-treat thing, but that became forbidden later. One of the reasons for this was my parents’ increasing belief in literal demons and a fear that it was easy to get one’s self possessed or at least “influenced” by one through seemingly innocuous activities. 


So celebrating “the Devil’s holiday” would risk demon possession, supposedly. But also books with too much or the wrong kind of “magic” in them. While my parents retained the Narnia books, we actually burned some Tolkien, an event that I was not happy about at the time, and look back on with bewilderment, as a few years later, we went and saw the LOTR movies. So….I have no freaking idea. 


But the biggest bogeymen of demonic possession were things related to “the occult.” Which, naturally, had and has a kind of….mushy definition. Hence the problem of which “magic” is benign (answer: fairy tales from European sources) and which is likely to give you a demon (answer: anything remotely connected to African, East Asian, or Native American culture and religion.) 


This included, for sure, the Ouija Board and seances and the like. 


This now makes me laugh, because both have their roots in 19th Century Spiritualism, and both were, from the very beginning, a bunch of hokum. 


[While it isn’t a systematic debunking, Mary Roach’s book, Spook, is definitely the funniest investigation of Spiritualism you can read. I mean, the question of whether a banana pudding has a soul does come up.]  


The Ouija Board was invented as a tool to speed communication with the spirit world, and patented by lawyer and inventor Elijah Bond, although it wasn’t given a name until 1890. Later, Parker Brothers (now owned by Hasbro) took out a trademark on the name, and sold it as a mass-market parlor game. 


I mention all of this because a seance using a homemade Ouija Board is central to the plot of the play. Why homemade? Because, as one character snarks, it’s better than relying on the spirituality of Hasbro. 


This also raised the question for me of exactly how “simulated” witchcraft differed from any other form - I mean, witchcraft isn’t any more real than Spiritualism. Otherwise, I imagine someone would have used it to kill Donald Trump by now. (Actually, it would be a fun thought experiment to set up a controlled study of the effectiveness of curses on, say, goats. Someone has probably done it by now. In any case, if witchcraft were real, it would be easy to prove that, right? Which is strong proof that it does not, in fact, exist.) 


Okay, so with that history and discussion out of the way, here are my thoughts on the play itself.


I’ll start with the content warning: there is some really disturbing shit in this play. It starts with the killing of a cat as a ritual sacrifice, and ends with a clothes-hanger abortion. There is blood involved with both. And the abortion is not exactly consensual, which is problematic for me in the context it occurs. More on that later. 


There is also a bit of violence between the characters, and discussion of sex and drugs and suicide. And cocaine and cigarettes. So maybe don’t take your small children. 


The basic setting of the play is a treehouse in Miami, with four teen girls who make up the “Dead Leaders Club,” a school club that just lost its funding and status over their choice to study a less savory “leader.” Namely, Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord from Columbia. 


They intend to call up his ghost at the seance they hold at the beginning and then again at the end of the play. 


In between, you have a lot of drama between the girls, as they feud over typical things, but also discover the trauma each of them has. Pipe, the leader of the group, is wracked with guilt over the death of her little sister, who drowned in the pool while Pipe was supposed to be watching her. Squeeze is dealing with her father’s suicide. Kit, the new member, is an immigrant who never knew her father, and lives in relative poverty (particularly when compared to Pipe.) Zoom is having significant difficulty navigating sexuality and relationships, and bragging about non-existent sexual encounters to compensate. And, as we discover, Pipe’s conservative Republican relatives would freak out if they knew she was lesbian. 


For most of the play, aside from the gruesome cat scene, the play feels much like a typical coming of age story. There is a lot of witty banter, some of which goes on at the same time, so it becomes a bit hard to follow, if also realistic. Set in 2008 (when the playwright was a teen in Miami…), the cultural references abound. It is laugh out loud hilarious at times, very much aided by the actors themselves, who truly inhabited their roles. 


I was a bit bewildered and disappointed with the ending, however. I’ll try to explain why. For so much of the play, it seemed as if the characters were growing and developing, particularly in their understanding of each other and themselves. 


And then, boom. Seance #2, and we are suddenly violently holding Zoom down and doing a bloody forced abortion on her as a sacrifice? What the fuck? It seemed to me to be out of character with everything that happened before.


And then, when Escobar’s ghost shows up (pushing the play firmly into magical realism territory), we get a discussion of what Pipe wants? I guess Escobar is more like Spiritual Mentor Guy? 


Actually, I liked the scene by itself. It is all in Spanish, which meant that I got the gist, but not anywhere near all the words. (My wife is more fluent, and she gave me a better translation afterward.) Which is fine - this is the 21st Century in California. Three of the plays I saw had at least some untranslated Spanish in it - or Spanglish, in some cases, which I am a bit better at understanding. 


And the question of what Pipe wants (and needs, even if she doesn’t know it) is freedom from the guilt, some sort of absolution, and permission to live her own life rather than try to compensate for the loss of her sister. Which also is good. It would have been interesting for the other three to have gotten something out of it too. 


It is in the context of the play that this just seems disconnected, particularly since all of it was triggered by violence by three of them against the one. And then it ends with the chant that makes up the “lesson” of the play, so to speak. 


Again, other than the abortion, which I felt was out of character and even just gratuitous shock value, any of these elements would have been fine in the abstract, but didn’t hold together for me. I felt kind of like there was a “how do we take what we started with and make an empowering ending, but with more gore?” thought process, rather than the careful time necessary to write a great denouement. This is just my opinion, and your mileage may vary. 


This doesn’t detract from the main body of the play, which was, as I said, compelling and hilarious and a lot of fun. 


There are only four official cast members - the four characters mentioned above. Justine Luevano was appropriately tightly wound as Pipe, and her struggle against her sexuality was pretty believeable. Nicole Nieto as Squeeze brought a kind of grounding that the other characters needed to hold them together. Manu as Kit had the street-smart, world-weary vibe. My only disappointment was that they spoke a bit too softly at times, and wasn’t as easy to hear. (No mics used in the small space at Stars Playhouse.) Finally, Molly Jiron as Zoom was a ball of chaos, with so much physical humor that she owned many of the scenes. 


The chemistry between the four is what made the play go - you really could believe in them as the characters, with their relationships and traumas. It was a true ensemble. 


Pipe (Justine Luevano), Squeeze (Nicole Nieto), Zoom (Molly Jiron), and Kit (Manu)

There are also two uncredited parts, and, unfortunately, I didn’t know either of the actors by sight, or I would give them credit for their roles as the ghosts of Pablo Escobar and Pipe’s sister. 


Finally, I’ll mention the wonderful set designed by Maya Blackstone (who also directed), Perrin Swanson, and Bethany Rowlee. 


This is the only one of the plays in this post that is still running - for one more weekend. 



The Courage to Right A Woman’s Wrongs by Ana Caro Mallen de Soto (CSUB)


This play is the most unusual of the bunch. Ana Caro Mallen de Soto was a Spanish playwright from the 17th Century, a rare early example of a woman who made her living through writing. Although popular in Spain, the work was only recently translated into English by Valor, a project of UCLA to translate the old Comidia plays. 


The play is set in its original period, with elaborate costumes, although with a fairly simple set of two balconies and a fountain. Like Shakespeare, de Soto uses the names of real places in ways that make it clear that they are “anywhere.” Like the “coastline of Bohemia” in The Winter’s Tale, “the mountains of Belgium” are equally improbable. 


The plot is an exciting one: Leonor is a young woman who has been seduced by Don Juan, led astray with false promises of marriage. (Well, he is Don Juan, after all…) Rather than expect a male relative to avenge her honor, Leonor decides to do it herself. She learns swordfighting, disguises herself as a man, Leonardo, and sets off to find both her long-absent brother, and the philandering Don. 


She comes to Brussels through the mountains, and finds it is ruled by a woman - Estela - who is beautiful and gracious. She is being courted by three men: Don Juan, of course; Ludovico, the prince of Pinoy; and Leonor’s brother, Don Fernando. 


Estela, naturally, falls in love with Leonardo. Oh, and there are also two ludicrous servants who provide comic relief: Ribete, and Tomillo. 


Will Leonor get her revenge? Or at least restore her honor? Will Don Juan get his just deserts? Will anyone win the heart of the beautiful Estela? Will everyone end up dead in the end?


And, speaking of that, I will mention that there is a prologue to the play, purporting to tell of the entire plot in advance, but which turns out to be highly misleading. Which is part of the humor - this is a witty comedy, after all. 


The problem with the play, which any production has to deal with, is that of patriarchal honor culture. Because Leonor has had sex, the only ways to redeem her honor is for her to marry her seducer or, failing that, for her family to kill him. (If she is pregnant, this might end in an honor killing of her too.) For modern audiences, the idea that it would be a “happy” ending for her to marry a dickwad like Don Juan is a bit unsatisfying. (As is the resolution in A Winter’s Tale, of course, for similar reasons.) We would prefer an ending where Don Juan gets his, and she is free to find true love with someone else - maybe even with Estela. 


But this is not that play, as it was not written in our times. 


What we do have is an inspiring heroine who defies gender expectations and takes justice into her own hands. (Much like another Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio.) And sassy she is too - the play has been brilliantly translated preserving the poetry. Maria Vega has been in a few plays around town, but I think this is the first time I have seen her as a lead. She is pretty small, but brought a fury and presence that made it believable that she could defeat the far taller Don Juan with a sword. (The sword fights were pretty tame, which is to be expected at this level - better to be safe than too complicated.) 

 Leonor/Leonardo (Maria Vega) and Don Fernando (Michael Hendrix)

I’ll also note Michael Hendrix with his gravitas in portraying Don Fernando; Maia Garcia as Estela; Divyang Motavar as the slightly silly Ludovico, and Sebastian Richardson as Ribete, Leonardo’s servant. He gets the money line:


“Even women want to write poetry and dare to write plays…” 


Javier Soto was excellent as Don Juan, appropriately creepy yet laughable. Matthew Penner was hilarious as the hapless servant of Don Juan, Tomillo. Poor guy. He can’t even get the girl, and has his codpiece pouch robbed…

 Don Juan (Javier Soto), Don Fernando (Michael Hendrix), Tomillo (Matthew Penner), Estela (Maia Garcia), 
Lisarda (Jocelyn Torres), unidentified ensemble, Ribete (Sebastian Richardson)

Overall, just a fun comedy with a flavor all its own. As I said, the poetry was translated well, the lines (while challenging for the cast) were delivered with aplomb. I am happy to see plays like this resurrected - a reminder that there have always been talented women, even in eras where they were rarely permitted to shine. 

As a final note, Spain wasn’t as uptight about women on stage as England, so the female parts were played by women, not teen boys. Part of the attraction of a play like this was getting to see women in pants as they impersonated men. Soooo titillating, I’m sure. In this production, many of the ensemble parts were played by women as well…in pants.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Converts or Disciples Part 5: The Fruit is Shit

Part 5: The Fruit is Shit


This is Part 5 of the series. Other parts (will be updated as I post them):


Converts or Disciples Part 1: A Musical Analogy

Converts or Disciples Part 2: The Problem With the Missionary Project

Converts or Disciples Part 3: Selling It

Converts or Disciples Part 4: The Theological Story is Shit





“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.” ~Jesus Christ


“Why are millennials choosing to part ways with the faith of their parents? No doubt their reasons are many and complex. But one clear factor in the decline of white Christianity is a prevailing sense that Christians are more likely to be racist, homophobic, self-righteous, and blindly patriotic. Not just in the past. And not just in the South. This is the lived experience of twenty-first-century Americans. Theirs is not an angry rebellion against conservative values. It simply seems to them that the Christianity of this land makes people worse.” ~ Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove




If you were to ask the average non-Evangelical off the street what they thought of first as associated with Evangelical Christians, I can bet you (and I would win) that the overwhelming majority would say something like this:


“Evangelicals…hate gay and transgender people.”


Does anyone think I am wrong about this? Anyone? Buehler? 


Not only that, I would also wager that if you asked the average white Evangelical what they thought was most wrong with our country, they would overwhelmingly mention the existence and toleration of gay and transgender people. Or at least something else connected with sex, such as premarital sex or abortion. (And yes, the anti-abortion movement is about sex: specifically whether women can control their own sexuality or bodies or not, which is why anti-abortion people are also opposed to any policies that actually reduce abortions, and instead focus on criminalization.) 


The thing is, this perception is exactly correct. When you look at what supposedly Christ-following people actually care about, it turns out to be stuff Christ didn’t even talk about, or that he mentioned in the context of men controlling themselves, not controlling women. 


But it gets worse, once you actually look at what white Evangelicals support in the realm of politics. 


Let’s see here: the same people seeking to ban books by and about LGBTQ+ people ALSO want to ban books by and about people of color, particularly if they talk about systemic racism, or might possibly make white people feel bad about their ancestors’ treatment of POC in the past (oh, and the present too.) 


Well, what about embracing immigrants and refugees? Nope. They want to build a wall and shut down the asylum system. Keep those (brown skinned) people out of our nice white Christian homeland. 


When it comes to economic policy, white Evangelicals are firmly in the camp of Social Darwinism - more so than any other group. It is so weird how people who talk so much about “grace” are so terrified that someone, anyone, (particularly a brown-skinned person or a woman) might get something they don’t deserve. Or at least that the white Evangelical thinks they don’t deserve


How about voter rights? They oppose them. How about affordable college? They oppose it. What about healthcare for everyone? Oh, they oppose that too. Some people just don’t deserve that


Or how about making sacrifices for public health, like wearing a mask during a pandemic, or avoiding large gatherings? Believe me, they oppose those too. 


How about the environment? They don’t believe in science, so of course they oppose trying to keep our planet habitable for future generations. Oh, and God will just destroy and replace it in the next few years anyway, can’t you read the signs?


I was thinking through the political commitments of white Evangelicalism early in the Trump Era, and I realized that while the best source for research into what they believe about political issues was to just watch Fox News (which is far more influential than any theologian in existence), one could also figure out their opinion by simply imagining the most cruel, the most selfish, the most callous, the most anti-reason, the most deluded, and did I mention the most cruel? - position, and that would be the white Evangelical one. 


It is no accident that the biggest reputational challenge that Evangelicalism faces right now is that the fruit of its theology is absolutely putrid. 


Let’s look at that fruit again. 


This is what those outside the bubble see happening:


Hatred and calls for extermination of LGBTQ people. 


Social Darwinist economics - the rich should have more, and the poor should have less.


Subordination of women in the church, the home, and in society. 


Hostility toward any form of racial justice. Historically, this has included support for slavery and Jim Crow. Now, it manifests as demonization of the perspectives of minorities through the deliberate mischaracterization of “CRT” and being “woke.” 


Exclusion of immigrants - at least the ones that are poor and/or brown skinned. 


The termination of democracy - because only people like them should have a say in our society. (That’s what Christian Nationalism is.) 


Support for Fascist politicians like Trump and DeSantis. 


Control of women’s bodies including forced gestation. 


Bans on books and ideas that differ from their theological, cultural, and political beliefs.


Forced indoctrination by government (including schools and libraries) of their particular theological, cultural, and political beliefs.


Contempt for younger people and their needs. This includes active efforts to shift costs onto them, as well as refusal to address student debt, unaffordable housing, and gun violence. 


Worship of a mythological past, when America was supposedly great. 


Hostility toward science of any sort (except some technology.) 


Hostility toward public health measures. 


A sense of entitlement and a belief that the law shouldn’t apply to them. 


The core behind ALL of this is a fundamental belief:


Some People Are Better and More Deserving Than Others


People like us are better, and deserve privileges that others do not. Society has natural hierarchies - men over women, rich over poor, whites over minorities, cishet people over LGBTQ people, Evangelicals over those with other beliefs. 


Is it any wonder my kids’ generation hates religion? 


This is the fruit.


This is the fruit.


It is thoroughly putrid, and everyone outside the bubble can see that. 


Is it any wonder why those outside of the Evangelical tribe want to vomit? 


If Evangelicals want to know why they aren’t making coverts, this is the reason. If you go around with a plate of fresh dogshit and try to sell it, of course people won’t be buying. 


You can’t sell putrid for very long, even with better marketing. The truth gets out, which is why “evangelism” and “witnessing” are doomed to fail until the product changes. This is why I believe that “evangelism” has a different purpose than actually making converts (let alone disciples) - see the previous installment for more on that. 


I will also add that I believe these political/cultural beliefs and practices are not “christian” at all in the sense of Christ-following. They are straight up Republicanity and Ku Klux Klanity - and you can literally follow the history of the ideas and policies back to white supremacy and social darwinism/eugenics. It isn’t a mystery at all where this is from - and it sure isn’t Christ. 


This is the crux of the difference between “making converts” and “making disciples.” Converts believe in the theological superstructure. Disciples follow Christ. 


By their fruits you shall know them. 


By itself, the rotten fruit is enough to prove that the theology is shit. You can know it by its fruit. However, in the next installment, I want to show how the shitty theology and the shitty fruit are intertwined and inseparable.


I’ll close with another quote from Jesus Christ about this whole business of proselytizing:


“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.”


The world does NOT need more Evangelicals. It needs a lot fewer of them. Because right now, they are the greatest driver of harm to vulnerable people in our country. Consumed with fear, hate, and entitlement, they harm others in the name of Christ.

       It has just become a bit more obvious what the actual god Evangelicals worship is...



“But but but…” 


Not all Evangelicals. Sure. And not even all white evangelicals, or all white evangelicals in ultra-conservative churches. Fine.


But north of 80 percent vote for these policies and politicians and parties. And they usually express support for every single one of the policies I have named. This is far higher than the general population. So, at minimum, there is strong correlation. 


One could speculate about causation. Maybe people who hold to bigoted and selfish views are attracted to the theology which gives them moral cover for harming others. Or maybe the theology itself (along with church culture) makes people more hateful and less loving. Take your pick.


But let’s just cut to the chase: I’m sure plenty of people at Klan rallies went because of peer pressure, and may not have believed in all the hate. But I wouldn’t recommend that an African American try to join the Klan. Or that a decent human being should do so. 


So likewise, if people who hold hateful views and support hateful policies are welcome in a church or a movement or a subculture, don’t be surprised if decent people don’t want to become converts. 


If you invite and welcome white supremacists, don’t be surprised if people of color aren’t interested in being a part of your group. If you invite and welcome misogynists, don’t be surprised if strong women do not want to be part of your group. If you invite and welcome anti-gay and anti-trans bigots, don’t be surprised if affirming people do not want to be part of your group. And so on.