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Stories out of 'Church,' or is it just pulpit fiction?

The unconventional plays at Baltimore's Single Carrot Theatre often involve equally unconventional seating arrangements. You never quite know what you'll be facing on stage or literally how you'll be facing it.

Young Jean Lee's "Church" is thematically true to form, but the seating is notable for its conventional configuration.

Actually, it's true to the spirit of this play that the audience sits in two sections of seats divided by a narrow central aisle. Much as in a church, we look up to a stage that's anchored by an imposing pulpit that's backed by the slide projection of a stained glass window.

In its own idiosyncratic way, "Church" emulates a church service. Reverend Jose (Aldo Pantoja) gives a sermon that incorporates overtly didactic parables, direct challenges to the presumably comfortable congregation/audience's spiritual assumptions, and confessional anecdotes about his own sinful transgressions in the past.

Sporting a broad smile, slicked back hair and a respectable-looking suit, this minister has the smooth patter to make his proclamations with ease.

Reverend Jose is occasionally joined by three other preachers played by Richard Goldberg, Sarah Gavitt and Melissa Wimbish. As they present an abundance of spiritually themed stories, that backing slide image of a stained glass window correspondingly changes into a kaleidoscopic array of abstract forms. At its most heavenly, the window has astral patterns.

Breaking the customary distance between the preachers at the pulpit and the congregation seated below and at a slight distance, these four preachers are inclined to come down the asile, shake hands, and greet us. They also ask individual audience members what they're praying for. Considering that I saw the show on a Sunday, it seemed fitting that a couple of audience members were dressed in Ravens jackets and a third audience member said he was praying for a football victory that day.

Of course, the experience wasn't entirely the same as sitting in church on a Sunday. One secular difference is that it's customary at Single Carrot for the theater to offers its patrons free soda, water, beer and wine at the box office. As this production's director, Nathan Fulton, observes in his program notes: "This may be the only chance you get to crack a Boh in church and not go straight to hell!"

There's no denying that the play itself has a measure of that satirical spirit percolating through its 60-minute running time, but it is not a spoof. In its own lighthearted, rather scattershot way, "Church" means to raise serious theological questions as they relate to our mundane lives. There's really nothing here to offend devout believers, but there's much to make any theater-goer think about religious issues.

The problem with the play is that it's all over the philosophical map. Individual stories are engaging, but they never really cohere in a larger sense. This play only succeeds to the limited extent that it makes you feel as if you're in a church with preachers who want you to ask the big questions. Beyond that, it's so random in its construction and its rhetoric that your own thoughts are apt to float around without leading to anything theologically rigorous.

Thank goodness, or God, as the case may be, that the always-energetic actors keep you alert to what the preachers they're playing have to say in this unconventional church. If nothing else, it may be the first time you've ever had the opportunity to simultaneously praise the Lord and pass the Natty Boh.

"Church" runs through Oct. 30 at Single Carrot Theatre, at 120 W. North Ave., in Baltimore. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 to $20. Call 443-844-9253 or go to http://www.singlecarrot.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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