“This Beautiful City” Review
The subject matter of religion and identity is harrowingly animated in This Beautiful City, written by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis from interviews by the company The Civilians, which opened Wednesday night at the Richmond Triangle Players. Not only is this adaptation an inspiriting departure from the holiday season of saccharine pieces, but also sets the bar for dramatic excellence for the remainder of the Acts of Faith Festival.
The subject matter may be controversial, but the artistry on stage at the Richmond Triangle Players is wholly engrossing and cathartic. Simply put, director John Knapp creates a provocative but entertaining performance that is not afraid to unleash the soul of storytelling.
This 2-hour “docu-musical” catalogues a series of interviews conducted in 2006 with the citizens of Colorado Springs, CO, the epicenter of American Christian evangelicalism. Interviewees include members of the New Life Church, a megachurch founded in 1984 by preacher Ted Haggard as well as the liberal citizens who oppose the normative Evangelical lifestyle.
The interplay of documentary and musical elements invites the audience to partake in the conversation on the way religion impacts individual identity, either by free will (embodied by Lanaya Burnette’s affecting performance in “Urban Planning” as T Girl who is empowered by her faith despite the scorn she receives from it as a transgender sexual minority) or by social establishment (Tarneeé Kendell Hudson’s brilliant humor as Teenage Girl in Act I’s “Whatever” shows contradictorily how her imposed faith induces teenage anxiety).
John Knapp seems dutifully aware of the multifaceted and complex nature of the source material. His incisively resuscitated production intelligently executes both the documentary and musical apparatus while neither sacrificing one over the other for simple commercial appeal. This balance provides the framework for the characters to express their individual stories of struggles with identity and faith.
Demonstrating an intelligent awareness of the subjective life experience of each character – from the alternative liberal writer (played powerfully by Andrew Hamm) to self-hating gay evangelical Tem Haggard (portrayed admirably by Scott Melton) – Knapp’s approach leaves each character a protagonist unto himself and it is only each character’s inner conflict with faith as the antagonist. It is each character’s idiosyncratic story told through prose and music that produced the standing ovation on Wednesday’s opening night.
Where one might expect in an LGBT social issues theater the tone to be overly scathing toward Christian conservatism, it appears that it is balanced. Consequently, the moral of the story emerges most insightfully in the consecutive affecting performances of Act II’s “Freedom” and “Urban Planning”: Take ownership of your life whether within or outside your faith.
On a technical note, John Knapp is right to place the set/video design in the adroit capability of Philip Milone. The set mimics a pulpit that is seen at evangelical churches replete with the band on stage and with a slideshow in the background. Milone’s creativity is clever, and invites the audience to literally “witness” the performance and relate with the actors. While some actors trip at some points in the score, musical director Kim Fox nonetheless synthesizes the distinct individual voices of each cast member to unearth lyricist Michael Friedman’s serious social messages that are embedded in the score while maintaining its entertainment appeal. The artistic direction coupled with these technical assets makes this show a truly must see this quarter.
At its greatest depth, This Beautiful City exposes that faith, when abused, is no better than the narcotics people take to cope with (or rather escape) existence. On the other side, however, the narrative shows that faith can be used as a tool for self-empowerment embodied by Hudson’s and Burnette’s poignant performances of out gay pastor Ben Reynolds and T-Girl, respectively. Knapp admits that in this show “there are no succinct answers,” but his creation accentuates the individual dilemmas that induce genuine reflective thinking. Any theatergoer looking to engage fully in the Acts of Faith Festival will do himself a great favor seeing this RTP performance.
“This Beautiful City” runs through February 5, 2011 at Richmond Triangle Players. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.richmondtriangleplayers.com/. Photo by John MacLellan, Richmond Triangle Players.
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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