One way or another, Available Light Theatre always challenges its audience.
With its original works, AVLT has challenged us to contemplate the mysteries of a particular topic, from the current financial crisis (Dirty Math) to the nature of the fourth dimension (Time and a Few Words).
In its choices of existing plays, it's challenged us with such uncanny experiments in communication and form as God's Ear by Jenny Schwartz and The Internationalist by Anne Washburn. It's made us laugh and cry and think.
The company's current production of Young Jean Lee's Church poses another sort of challenge. Taking the form of a modern church service, Church communicates chiefly through a series of sermons.
In the post-performance talkback, Acacia Duncan (Reverend Casey) cited theater mentor Anne Bogart as saying that much more difficult than making an audience laugh or cry is giving each member a uniquely individual experience. Church does exactly that, keeping the audience utterly off balance.
An audience member in the talkback said she'd been afraid to laugh because, "I don't trust this play." Your own reaction to Church may depend upon how sympathetic or antagonistic to religion you are walking in, and how you interpret what playwright Lee is actually doing.
Church begins in darkness with an offbeat hymn followed by a biting sermon attacking our inflated sense of self-worth and materialism, delivered by Reverend Jose (Ian Short). Such a harangue could fall on deserving ears in any upscale audience of theatergoers or, I would imagine, in many a contemporary progressive urban church.
The lesson is sharp and witty, evoking both laughter and recognition. Complete sincerity marks Short's delivery.
The exact same sincerity, the exact same lack of irony mark each of the sermons, even as they skirt the outer reaches of sanity. Reverend Eleni (Eleni Papaleonardos) launches into a ritual celebration of spouting chicken blood. Jose goes on about literal, walking-around mummies.
Reverend Kate (Kate Watts) tops them all as her sermon devolves into an almost scary mash-up of religious testimony and dream logic. She tells a rambling, semi-coherent story with the lucid urgency of early Bob Dylan lyrics.
Lee ends Church with a series of dance and musical offerings that again, I imagine, you could find in many churches today. Reverends Casey, Eleni and Kate harmonize exquisitely and move with a convincingly ecstatic projection of worshipful joy.
Lee gives equal weight and credence to both the reasonable and the irrational, to both the words in which many of us can see ourselves and the words from which we recoil in horror.
AVLT leaves the audience with the challenge of wondering how much of Church is celebratory and how much is cautionary.