By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: Approx. 90 minutes with no intermission
Religion can be a tricky thing to write an entire show about. Religion is a very personal concept and people have very strong feelings about it which makes it even more risky. However, to find a good balance and write a show about religion that isn’t over-saturated with said religion is a rare and beautiful thing and Baltimore Center Stage’s latest production, The Christians by Lucas Hnath, Directed by Hana S. Sharif, with Music Direction by Jaret Landon, is just that, a fine balance of beliefs told in an entertaining but honest and poignant way that makes for an enjoyable, yet thought-provoking evening of theatre.
Mike Carnahan’s Set Design is minimal, but beautiful. This set puts the audience in the seats of a mega-church with a sleek and modern design that is quite functional, including a choir loft and bandstand for the outstanding choir and small band that is included in this piece. Most of the action takes place center stage and the minimal design prevents mucking up or crowding the actors and the band and choir, though set back, is prominent and easy to see, as they should be. This clever set design works in tandem with the stunning and mood-setting Projection Design by Hana S. Kim, that adds value to the production and, as stated, sets the mood for each scene and action happening onstage.
As with any mega-church, or any service in general, music is an important aspect and Music Director Jaret Landon knocks it out of the ballpark with this production. Wisely, this piece starts off with the choir (credited as the Community Choir of Baltimore Center Stage) with an upbeat, gospel piece that has the audience tapping their feet and clapping their hands. Some even sing along, which is actually encouraged. I’d like to note I am a HUGE fan of gospel music and I found myself tapping, clapping, and singing! Landon has the choir singing in beautiful harmony and the soloists were on point. The band, consisting of Jaret Landon on Keyboards, Todd Harrison on Drums, Max Murray on Bass, and Michael Raitzyk on Guitar are tight and well-rehearsed making for a phenomenal performance along with the Community Choir of Baltimore Center Stage. The music aspect of this production really put the audience in the mindset of the piece. The only stumble that comes along in the musical styling of this production is the last choir performance which is kind of like an audience-interactive piece, like in a church, and though the choir is just as strong as they are in the beginning, the male soloist is a curious choice as he doesn’t seem to have the gospel style down as well as he should for a finale, a little stiff and a little more subdued and technical than called for, the soloists performance just seems to fall flat. Otherwise, major kudos to a job well done in the music department.
Lighting Design by Jen Schriever is precise and fits well with this production. With isolation lighting and splashes of color, where needed, it blends nicely and moves the piece along without jarring the aesthetics or being a hindrance to the piece itself. A true sign of a good lighting design is when one doesn’t notice the lighting, but does when needed and that’s exactly what happens with Schriever’s design.
Hana S. Sharif takes the reigns of The Christians and she does, indeed, have a great comprehension of the text and the meaning of this complex story. Her casting is spot on and they all work well together. Her vision is clear and the piece does not lean to one side or the other but balances just as the text requires. Sharif does well with the multifaceted issue of afterlife and one’s belief in that afterlife, which is the center of this piece, and presents it in a way that is a back and forth dialogue instead of an argument. The pacing is near perfect and she keeps the action moving forward with moments of intensity between certain characters that give it a peaks and valleys movement which is exactly what makes this show work.
Moving on to the performance aspect of The Christians, every single actor in this ensemble made his or her character his or her own and worked with and off of their cast mates beautifully.
Jessiee Datino takes on the role of Jenny, a single mom who found redemption and salvation in the church and wants desperately to keep what she found but is having questions which she hesitantly, but bravely presents. Datino has this this character down pat. From the nervous giggling to the gestures, she really embodies this character of Jenny and has a good grasp on her. Datino gives a strong, natural, and delightful performance.
Lawrence Clayton (who if you look really quickly, could be a Lawrence Fishburn double) takes on the role of Elder Jay, a jovial but-business minded gentlemen who really wants what best for the church. Clayton plays this role splendidly with an authenticity that makes this character quite likeable and wise.
Adam Gerber tackles the role of Associate Pastor Joshua, the staunch, zealous, yet faithful Associate Pastor who wants what’s best for the church, just like the rest of the characters, but also wants to be certain everyone believes in a certain doctrine or dogma. Gerber plays the role intensely and confidently, making his character not so likable, but not despicable. His emotion and gestures give an authenticity to this character that Gerber completely embodies. The thing about his character is, we all, in one way or another, directly or indirectly, know a person like this character and he’s hard to figure out. He has an objective, that Gerber works for brilliantly, but it’s still hard to reconcile our respect for this character and our own beliefs, making for a stimulating and exasperating character that Gerber pulls off effortlessly.
Taking on the role of Elizabeth, the preachers wife, is Nikkole Salter who has an air of elegance and dignity that is required for this role. She fits perfectly with this character and gives a poignant, truthful performance. Salter works especially well with and has great chemistry with her counter-part, Howard W. Overshow, who takes on the complex role of Pastor Paul, who’s belief is changing and trying to deal with it and the opinions of his congregation. Overshow is an absolute standout in this production giving a superb performance. From the moment he steps onstage, one feels they are in a service watching a strong, confident preacher do his thing. His booming, yet comforting voice and gestures make for an extremely realistic performance and the emotion he emotes throughout his more intense scenes is outstanding. His anguish and confusion is clear in his performance and he handles the balance beautifully.
Final thought… The Christians is a poignant, though-provoking look at beliefs and how they can shape or even re-shape a person’s outlook on life. The performances were top-notch and the book by Lucas Hnath is cleverly written as he doesn’t dwell so much on religion but on individual views on the afterlife and gives a good balance of those views. From set design, lighting, and the amazing choir supporting this piece; you don’t want to miss it! It may have you asking questions or confirming what you already believe but either way, it will make you think and that’s always what good theatre does. Get your tickets now!
This is what I thought of Baltimore Center Stage’s production of The Christians… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
The Christians will play through October 8 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.
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By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy