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A CurtainUp Review
This Beautiful City
By Elyse Sommer
As luck would have it, the Haggard scandal erupted just as the Civilians were in town doing the usual interviews that are the first stage for all their shows. And, with Haggard once again in the news giving interviews on television, This Beautiful City makes a timely landing at the Vineyard Theater after previous runs at the Humana Festival and in Los Angeles.
The Civilians' method of scripts forged by Steven Cosson and Jim Lewis from interviews conducted by company members echoes the technique pioneered by Moises Kaufman's Techtonic group for their much produced The Laramie Project (review of premiere production). What's unique to the Civilians, however, is that their documentaries are heavily infused with Michael Friedman's music and lyrics. They're not quite musicals though they always feature a small band and tend to burst into song at any moment. Actually they're not quite documentaries either, since the interviews are a way of examining d a topic and ruminating about it but not to come up with any pro or con conclusions. New York audiences who are most likely to be mostly the choir responding to Bill Maher and Michael Moore may therefore find This Beautiful City's take on the Evangelical Christian movement too even-handed. That even-handedness is reflected in the inclusion of proselytizing Evangelicals, the men and women they've evangelized, as well as those who see them as a threat to freedom of expression who are brought to life by the multi-tasking sextet of performers. Having an actor likely to play people of widely differing persuasions and backgrounds adds to this neutrality.
There's no plot per se, just a patchwork of Evangelical types and Colorodo Springs residents who are none too happy with being caught up in this seemingly unstoppable wave of Christian right dominance. Among the Evangelicals we meet there's the ex-Detroit economic development specialist, who used her Christian connections to bring religion (along with prosperity), to Colorado Springs; a Fairness and Equality leader who sums up the Christian Right's ambition of making their social programs pervasive enough to lead to the dismantling the non-Christian organizations, thus making the Evangelical services an imperative for everyone); a trio of singers with a cowboy twang to their musical proselytizing. There are also appearances by the sinful Pastor Haggard as well as his son Marcus who reflects on his father's downfall.
Speaking for the un-evangelized population there's a writer who hates the Christian Right's bullying ways and defiantly started an alternative rag called Toilet Paper. There's also a Jewish man whose immediate family has "a hundred and fifteen years, combined Air Force service" whose disgust with the Air Force's official policy "to evangelize anyone who comes into the service who is unchurched" has made him a freedom activist. Another and quite moving minority figure is a T-Girl (a man by birth, woman by choice) whose trans-gender-ism has left her without money or a church but who defiantly refuses to move to a less hostile environment. ("You know what this is AMERICA. I like it here. I LIKE seing Pikes Peak out of my front door. And I'll be doggoned if some guy is gonna to tell me where I can or can't live")
Covering all these points of view gives the show a personality landscape that feels as big as Colorado's majestic Pikes Peak — a natural treasure that is uplifting and beloved by everyone we meet, whether devoutly Christian or Atheist. Though one would expect a group like the Civilians to tilt towards satirizing the more disturbing elements of excessive religiosity, especially its influence on the body politic, the right wingers are not presented as monsters and the power of faith is given as fair a hearing as the right to be different and independent. The rather touching monologue by Ted Haggard's son Marcus is a case in point. Still, a theater piece like this tends to be rather bland and emotionally uninvolving without the fire generated by a more opinionated script, and it's only the awsomely versatile performances and the liveliness added by Friedman's songs and the dynamic staging, that keeps this from happening.
Each of the six actors who make up the cast is a star, with perhaps Stephen Plunkett and Marsha Stephanie Blake the standouts, but the superstars of this show are scenic designer Neil Patel and lighting wizard David Weiner. Patel's cube-like cityscape is just stunning, and made even more so when Weiner lets it explode with light or display Jason H. Thompson's projected images. There's enough room at the top of these buildings for views of Pikes Peak.
This Beautiful City would benefit from being trimmed to the same 90 minutes as the long-running and more generally entertaining Gone Missing. Though it is tempting to label a political show that refuses to express a definite point of view as "too bland and tame" the Civilians do manage to put interesting questions on the table, and in a uniquely entertaining manner.
[I am} Nobody's Lunch
This Beautiful City-LA