Review: TAG’s ‘Church’ watered down

Sep. 10, 2015 | 0 Comments
The cast of TAG's presentation of "Storefront Church."  Photo courtesy TAG.

The cast of TAG’s presentation of “Storefront Church.”
Photo courtesy TAG.

BY BRETT Oppegaard / Special to the Star-Advertiser

Instead of the typical celebratory announcements that usually preface a season-opening performance, stage manager Dennis Proulx somberly recounted Friday night the struggles The Actors’ Group had dealt with during the previous few days.

As heavy rain inundated many parts of Oahu, The Shops at Dole Cannery, including TAG’s Brad Powell Theatre, were flooded multiple times. Proulx said the first call came at 3 a.m. about 10 days prior, when 16 inches of water filled the space. They still had the fans and dehumidifiers in the theater when the second wave hit, he said, bringing another 7 inches of water; then they were soaked one more time.

But the show — in this case, a production of John Patrick Shanley’s “Storefront Church” — must go on. So TAG stacked sandbags around its front entrance and posted a hurried handwritten sign proclaiming, “Opening Nite at TAG … We are still here!”

The effects of the disruptions were apparent from the start. Proulx, a veteran actor, stumbled through his statements, even when using a tablet computer prompter. The opening scene would have been a disaster on the first day of rehearsals. David Paul Starr (as loan officer Reed Van Druyten) and Gerald Altwies (as a behind-on-the-mortgage homeowner named Ethan Goldklang) bumbled through a conversation in which Goldklang was pleading for leniency on his payments and Druyten refused to deviate from the rules.

Altwies several times started to say the wrong line before correcting himself midsentence, and Starr, either thrown off by Altwies or in his own state of discombobulation, awkwardly started and stopped his lines in fits of uncertainty. To end the scene, Altwies’ character was supposed to have a dramatic heart attack from the stress of the situation, but he instead acted out this moment in three-quarters speed, making it unclear whether he was feigning the health problem for comic effect or was seriously in trouble.

This story takes place in the Bronx, N.Y., where bank investors are vying to convert an old building into a shopping mall, promising to invest $300 million in the project. The ambitious borough president, Donaldo Calderon (portrayed by Eli K.M. Foster), sees this project as a way to catapult his career to the next level of prominence. This preacher’s son, though, also is torn by his allegiances to the people of the borough, their concerns and dreams, and how this project will affect them.
When discussing the project with the bank manager, for example, Calderon challenges the idea that the project will bring high-quality jobs, noting that most of them will pay minimum wage. The bank manager, Tom Raidenberg (Brian Gibson), argues that everyone needs to start somewhere. He seems puzzled why people would rather remain unemployed than take such a low-potential retail position. Calderon responds by asking whether Raidenberg’s son would be satisfied with such a job.

The storefront church of this piece is a section of the home that Goldklang and his wife, Jesse Cortez (Mary Ann Shirley-Gray), are losing as part of the bank’s mortgage scam involving balloon payments. The church’s preacher, the Rev. Chester Kimmich (Vontress Mitchell), a survivor of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, challenges the idea that action, movement and economic growth inherently are “good” for people. He prefers to sit in a chair in the dark. The exchanges between the preacher (Mitchell) and the politician (Foster) provide many of the show’s highlights.

While the script, written by Pulitzer Prize winner Shanley, raises various challenging questions about the societal power struggle between money and religion, and exposes some of the related moral tensions, this TAG production mishandles much of it. Director Kathy Bowers appears stretched too thin, also being listed as designing the set and responsible for sound and props, all of which could have used more attention. The set, for example, inefficiently uses what already is a small stage, breaking it into even more tiny areas for the actors to work, unaided by meaningful lighting, sound effects or scenery.

How much of this messiness is related to the flooding and how much to the participants is unclear. From the audience’s perspective, though, the production clearly comes across as damaged.

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