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Reviews heading into the final 2 performances of ALTARCATIONS

June 19, 2012

ALTARCATIONS Writer/director Steve Julian’s indictment of the Catholic church’s mass cover-up of child abuse allegations feels a little musty. After all, the scandal broke almost 10 years ago. Special here, however, is the focus. Instead of pointing the finger solely at gay priests, Julian widens the scope to include heterosexual heads of power; instead of bashing the abusers, he balances accusations with shows of the struggle to best temptation and reconcile godly profession with Biblically-forbidden sexual inclination. Worth the price of admission alone is the astonishing Travis Michael Holder’s brandy-soaked scene with homosexual Father Bart (Robert Keasler). Jeff Gardner’s design-on-a-dime projections and the theatre’s church-pew-like seating quite successfully create atmosphere. Actors Circle Theatre, 7313 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hlywd.; Fri., 5 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through June 24. hollywoodfringe.org/projects/920. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

anonymous says “Not My Thing” · June 15, 2012

Ok, this show dragged like no other. The transitions took forever. Even the ones that didn’t have the answering machine. The acting was ok. Some definitely better than others. No names will be named The script repeated itself over and over. The audience gets told the same stories no less than three times each. Despite being about priests and boy rape, there weren’t really any risks taken in any form.

Cindy Marie Jenkins says “Loved It” · June 09, 2012

Brave. That word came to mind after seeing “Altarcations.” Add difficult topics to complex characters with a dose of the Holy Spirit and that might begin to describe my experience seeing this show.

From the poignant imagery of the very first scene through powerful acting and surprises, you truly don’t want to miss this show.

Minus one production element that said a little too clearly the thoughts running through my head, the strength of this story and the people trapped within it will haunt you.

Hettie Lynne Hurtes says “Loved It” · June 14, 2012

Making highly flawed characters who can produce devastating effects on others, sympathetic is a very difficult task for a writer. Steve Julian does just that in Altarcations, creating characters who are so real we can understand their moral dilemmas as we compare them to our own.

Don Shirley, LA STAGE  Times

..Having said all that, I can’t claim that my Fringe theatergoing so far this year has yielded nothing of value.  The Fringe show that interested me the most last week is Steve Julian’s Altercations, at Actors Circle. From the outset, for the sake of full disclosure, let me stipulate that playwright/director Julian writes for LA STAGE Times, and I often edit his copy. I usually try to avoid reviewing the work of people with whom I work or who I know socially. But Altarcations is the only piece I saw last week that clearly seems to merit further development at a more professional level than what the Fringe offers.

It tackles the ongoing sex abuse scandals within the Catholic Church more forthrightly than any other play I’ve seen. Yet it does this without any especially graphic depictions of the abuse. Indeed, at first Julian applies such a subtle touch that you might begin to wonder if the play is, like John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, about the possibility of doubt over the truth of these incidents

Eventually, however, the play comes down to brass tacks, with each of the four characters representing a somewhat different perspective on the situation. At the top of the hierarchy is a bishop (Travis Michael Holder) who is charged with investigating abuse in a diocese where he himself participated in the abuse of an underage girl decades ago, before he became a priest.  That girl has now grown into a woman (Dylan Jones) who is now receiving unwanted phone calls from her abuser. She still attends confession as a way of dealing with these calls, and she provides room and board to a teenage altar boy (Drew Hellenthal) who’s attending seminary in this (unnamed) city. Meanwhile, back at the parish, Father Bart (Robert Keasler) is struggling with his attraction to that same altar boy, whom he also coaches in water polo – which provides the opportunity for surreptitious photos of the boy in his swim suit.

Travis Michael Holder and Robert Keasler

The characters are intertwined in a way that builds suspense and leads quite plausibly to a fiery four-way collision. I’m not sure that it’s necessary to add video testimony from a real-life spokeswoman for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests – this documentary context might better be handled by program notes or lobby displays in a larger production. Still, this video doesn’t noticeably drag down the pacing, and it might even help bridge the gaps between scenes in this bare-bones production, where transitions are difficult to execute in the streamlined way that would be possible in a larger production.

The punny title is a little too suggestive of a Nunsense-style farce. But whatever it’s called, I look forward to seeing Julian’s play at the next step of its development.

Sarah Spitz says “Liked It” · June 14, 2012

The Hollywood Fringe Festival, an annual celebration of independently produced emerging arts across all genres, is premiering new music, film, theatre and other performance events in multiple conventional and unorthodox venues from June 14 through June 24. More can be found at http://www.HollywoodFringe.org.

On Sunday, I attended a Fringe Festival production, “Altarcations.” Written by KPCC’s morning news anchor, Steve Julian, it’s a serious take on victims of abuse at the hands of clergy. But as Julian writes in his introductory notes, “It’s not anti-Catholic. It is anti-abuse and anti-cover up,” the key themes treated in his play.

Looking at the seats from the theatre’s center aisle, you might actually think they’re pews, especially as you’re being bathed in low lighting and church organ music.

Father Bart (Robert Keasler) is in quiet crisis. His protégé, naïve and holy Tommy (Drew Hellenthal) is studying to be a priest. Advising Tommy on the art of hearing confession, he says, “Listen with your heart.” But his heart is lusting for Tommy.

Bishop Michael (Travis Michael Holder), who left the city long ago, is back in town to root out abuse by clergy under his jurisdiction. “Some in this calling have fallen and taken innocents along with them,” he says in a sermon. He’s in charge of the investigation.

Tommy, while attending seminary, is living with Rachel (Dylan Jones) who had a life-altering, guilt-inducing relationship with Bishop Michael when he was still in seminary and living next door to her. Now that he’s back, Bishop Michael has been calling Rachel non-stop, for reasons she cannot fathom. Alarmed by these calls, she goes to church to confess her hatred for someone who abused her 20 years ago, and Father Bart hears her confession, not knowing who she’s talking about.

Over drinks, the Bishop’s frank sexual talk, admitting his own lusts for women and getting Father Bart to open up about his longing for boys, is emblematic of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge attitude that Julian is writing about here (“You haven’t embezzled, have you? Because that’s a real problem,” he says). “Live with your lust,” says Bishop Michael, “or seek forgiveness if you can’t stop yourself. Absolution brings us to understand, not change, who we are.”

The complex and tangled web of these four lives plays out in dramatically well-constructed short scenes that build to a surprising twist and conclusion.

“Altarcations” is a serious, admirably written one-act play with a good story arc.

The performances, while heartfelt, felt a bit halting on the day I saw it, with some Pinter-esque “pregnant pauses” that may not have been intentional.

However, it’s worth your time; only four performances remain, Fridays at 5 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m. at Actors Circle Theatre, through June 24. For more information, visit http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/920.

Vincent Smetana, Cinesnatch

The Catholic-based drama Doubtdealt with the ambiguity of the “did he/didn’t he”-premise surrounding a boy which a priest had been accused of molesting.  The film version builds on the element of suspense (unfortunately, I have not yet seen a production of the play), as it’s up to an imperfect nun to hunt for justice within the guarded internal mechanics of The Church.  In Steve Julian’sAltarcations, the story isn’t as cagey and addresses the disease instead of just the symptoms of the historically recent sex scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church.  It bravely jumps into the gray area of the pool and presents some fresh, little heard insight on the matter.  Clerical officials conduct an internal investigation presided over by Bishop Michael (Travis Michael Holder).  His hollow call to arms suggests little, if anything, will happen while matters are left to the responsibility of his colleagues.  As well, the play explores the unfolding relationship between Father Bart (Robert Keasler) and his protégé Tommy (Drew Hellenthal).

Altarcations opens with a controversial image of a teenage altar boy kneeling subserviently before a priest he innocuously, rudimentarily helps dress.  Living away from home while receiving a precursory seminary-based education, the student inquires how a pastor can offer informed guidance to parishioners with little real life experience.  He’s smart, inquisitive, and takes his studies seriously.  He’s young enough to still wear rose-tinted glasses and believe in The Good of the Church, without having fallen prey to self-serving adult desires.  WhileAltarcations admirably tries to provide a well-rounded view of the Catholic religion/organization during its finely examined prosecution, any defense attorney offering a rebuttal would have to resort to less-than-genuine tactics to make a case for this machine that is simply broke.

Nuns strangely seldomly enter the realm here, physically or in conversation, which is telling, considering the more sex-driven gender controls most matters.  The script also downplays the well-supported notion that sexual orientation and the object of a ephebophile’s/pedophile’s desire are mutually exclusive to one another.  While an untreated victim who becomes an agressor does seek out victims who share the gender of their victimizer, gay activists tend to impress upon “hetero-married” men molesting young boys as such an indication to separate the mental disease of pedophilia, etc, from homophobic backlash.  But, this play doesn’t pussy-foot around: if in one’s heart of hearts, one truly loves dick and they happen to be(come) a pedophile, etc, then they’re probably going to be sticking their hands down the pants of boys and not reaching them little girls’ skirts.  It’s not rocket science.

On the other hand, Julian also tries to level the playing field.  Bishop Michael is supposed to be straight, because he talks about how much he loves vagina.  It’s pretty well understood that priests are disproportionately gay (as it’s a vocation that removes them from the possibility of hetero-marriage) and the audience is left to believe that The Church has been incredibly adept at sweeping its heterosexual offenders under the clerical rug more so than their gay counterparts.  It’s a political correct Communion wafer that I’m not sure this reviewer can swallow. It’s also understood by those who subscribe to basic Christian tenets that man is sinner.  But, society regards religious institution with an “implied moral superiority.”

Yet, priests, bishops, The Pope, are all still men (i.e. sinners).  (Father Bart, a modern human like anyone else, plays with his cell phone during a confessional and expresses ungodly impatience under his breath while a parishioner attempts to unburden herself of a long-held secret.)  By not discussing the elephant in the room, this cloudy, ill-defined notion places a fox squarely as hen house guardian.  And, unfortunately, there is no one to protect the innocent without government and law enforcement involvement.  And, until then, the guilty are just “weeds” and will continue to pop up all over the place.

Altarcations also shrewdly attacks the vow of chastity and the repercussions of the sexually repressive nature of celibacy.  So often it is heard that pedophiles, etc, are created through nurture vs. nature more than anything else, but it’s often in the light of the perpetrator planting the seeds in the victim.  How far do you go back before you actually address the real source of the problem?  Particularly in the case of gay men, who are disproportionately attracted to the occupation of priest, the play smartly implies, in not so many words, what can you expect will happen to a man (i.e. a sinner adorned with clerical collar or not) without a healthy outlet for his sexuality?  And, unfortunately, Father Bart sees his lust as a betrayal of priesthood, not humanity.

The oppressive act of praying the gay away only leads to praying the pedophilia, etc, away, which only results to temporary absolution offered by the Catholic confession, where Father Bart finds harbor.  All talk, no action, the confession temporarily relieves the conscience, until one falls prey to their weaknesses yet again.  It’s an ironic cycle that perpetuates an insidiousness on both small and larger scales that ultimately effect the devilish managerial style of The Church.  “Absolved, not changed,” Bishop Michael explains to Father Bart.  Being forgiven of one’s sins does not bring one closer to God.  In fact, in the mind of a deluded priest, it can drive him closer to Satan.

Like anything else that’s too big to fail, no wonder the Catholic Church is declining in numbers.  Marring the development from child to adult leaves the scarred individual to fend for themselves, who might actually become a monster themselves.  No amount of prayer changes who you are and/or turned into, the play suggests, making the plight of protecting children all that more vital.

Playwright Julian exhibits some sharp observations (Tommy muses over the possibility of Jewish football players in the context of the game’s non-kosher centerpiece) and writing (“money trickles up; judgment trickles down”).  There are a couple of creepy, suggestive moments that the play tackles head-on, otherwise, what would be the point of telling the story without providing some level of discomfort.

The efficient tone of the 80-minute production (sans intermission) is effective and thoroughly absorbing until contrivances muscle their way in, as the scenes soon compensate by being over-directed.  You know the confrontational climax is coming, but you don’t expect a less than earnest tone.  Julian loses the emotional capital he has spent building up and the inappropriate (perhaps inadvertent) dialogue makes a mockery of its victims, both potential and otherwise.  There’s also a twist that is a heavy-handed and maudlin eye-roller, but eventually regains its footing.

Hellenthal as Tommy does an admirable job with his complex role.  He achieves some incredible moments while struggling with the character’s plight, but, at times, the lines between character and actor blur and that struggle doesn’t translate completely to the stage.  Holder lords over the cast as the slovenly, yet matter-of-fact Bishop Michael.  He’s a jaded cog in more ways than one in the Roman Catholic’s insatiable appetite for puer delicatus.  The secret he harbors becomes clear very early in the script, though he handles his duplicitous nature quite well to bide the time.  Additionally, as the defeated Rachel, Dylan Jones carries her nightmares in several oversized pieces of emotional baggage.  The weight of the world is on her shoulders and Jones gives everything inside of her to her character.  Keasler as Father Bart carves out a nuanced, touching turn in a challenging role.  He can do a lot with very little.

The scene transitions include imagery of Jesus Christ, The Last Supper, the inside of a church, doves, a locker room, all  projected on the back wall of the theatre while organ music plays and stagehands change around set pieces.  Interspersed between the imagery is a video interview with a woman speaking to a news reporter about the problems of sexual abuse in the church.

The excellent, thought-provoking show stumbles in the final act, reaching for a grandiosity it can’t support.  Still, with all of its flaws, this is one of the must-see productions to watch at Hollywood Fringe this year.  The play offers an original perspective that finds little, if any, voice in the mainstream.  Please go see this, warts and all.  Curated by the Coeurage Theatre CompanyAltarcations shows at the Actor’s Circle Theatre on June 10th (4 PM), 15th (5 PM), 17th (4 PM), 22nd (5 PM), and 24th (4 PM).  You can buy tickets here.
Favorite off-stage moment: The bitchy side-eye Julian Sands shot the person behind him when she started audibly turning pages in her program during an intimate moment of the play.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Diamond_Friend permalink
    June 22, 2012 3:44 pm

    Er… I remember reading this same review somewhere else and having the last line be “The bitchy side-eye Julian Sands’ doppelganger shot the person behind him when she started audibly turning pages in her program during an intimate moment of the play.”

    • June 23, 2012 12:26 pm

      The reviewer dropped the ‘doppelganger’ reference upon learning it wasn’t Julian’s doppelganger.

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