Sunday, November 06, 2011

Jesus hopped the A train

This post contains spoilers for JESUS HOPPED THE A TRAIN.

I read JESUS HOPPED THE A TRAIN and VENUS IN FUR at around the same time and I think JESUS is the better play. Which I would not have expected since JESUS is about violence and seems to include a plug for religion, while VENUS is about sex with a Greek goddess.

I had to finally read JESUS since I gave the play's title a shout-out in my MISTRESS ILSA play. Mistress Ilsa has a habit of using The Lord's name in vain in a variety of colorful ways: holy hopping Jesus on a pogo stick!; Jesus on the half-shell! etc. So she used the title of the play at one point. You can watch it here.

JESUS is more complex and the story is more interesting than VENUS, even though much of the play is composed of monologues.

The main character is Angel, who shot a Korean cult leader in the butt and is in jail for that. He meets up with another prisoner who seems genial and the victim of an unfairly mean prison guard. In spite of a public defender taking an interest in his case and trying to keep him out of jail, he's sentenced to a long time in jail - his lawyer tried to get him to lie on the stand, and because he found faith, apparently, he won't do it. His lawyer ends up disbarred.

And here's where I'm going to get on my soapbox about the over-use of the "reveal" - it seems like every contemporary play has to have one. JESUS has one, VENUS has one and the crappy play I saw in Astoria today, which I won't mention by name, has one - in this case that the protagonist worked for the flight school that unknowingly trained the 9-11 hijackers to fly. We had to sit through a dreary sitcom-esque thirty minutes before we got to that part.

Even though HAMLET is not absolutely perfect (see yesterday's post for details) it does not have any reveals. We know exactly what the issue is from the earliest scenes of the play. Hamlet is mourning his father, he sees his father's ghost, the ghost tells him that his uncle killed him. Everything that happens in the play stems from that.

And that's the way it goes with all Shakespeare's plays. Information is not always revealed to characters, but the audience is always privy to the information.

The big reveal in JESUS, about 2/3 of the way through the script is that the seemingly good, devout jailbird Lucius is a psychopathic killer who has killed at least eight people. At one point he describes torturing and killing a little boy. Suddenly the mean prison guard doesn't seem so bad.

It would have been OK except that we are supposed to believe Angel finds religion by having debates about God with Lucius - after he already knows he's a psychopath - and I find that absurd. Probably because I am an atheist and Guirgis is not - he's a little coy about it on his Facebook profile - under Religious Views it says "360 degrees" but I found a quote from him here:

I also think that religion gets a bad rap in this country and that non-maniac-type people who are religious or spiritual have a responsibility to stand up, be counted, and gently encourage others to consider matters of faith and to define for themselves what their responsibilities are and what it means to try and be “good.” It’s not about joining a team or a church or choosing sides or learning a prayer. It’s not about man-made concepts of good and evil. It’s not about doing “enough” or “too little.” It’s not about shame and guilt. It’s about You. It’s about the collective Us. Thomas Merton said, “To be a saint means to be myself.” What if that were true? What is it that we need to overcome in order to truly be “Ourselves”?
But the reason that religion gets a "bad rap" is exactly because it's about joining a team or a church and choosing sides, etc. If all religions had the vague, no-judgments attitude of the Unitarian Universalists it wouldn't get a bad rap. But Unitarianism is a tiny sect compared to the religions that tell you if you are on their team you won't go to hell - and some that go one better than that and tell you if you join their team Jesus will give you stuff.

That is what religion is mostly about to the mass of humanity: praying to get stuff. Except for some eastern sects who seek to end all desire - of course not wanting desire is a form of desire.

But it's because religions are so nasty that so many people these days, who are not ready to commit to atheism say they are "spiritual, not religious."

But Guirgis knows how to write a monologue and he found a way to have lots of monologues but still painlessly move the plot along and reveal character. Plus some of the interactions between the prisoners and guards are very funny.

So the upshot is that I found much to like about JESUS HOPPED THE A TRAIN, but the conclusion was unsatisfying and not believable. And the whole obvious religious metaphor of the Angel/Lucius names was a bit much too.

But it bears much more thinking about than VENUS IN FUR. Mostly because VIF is, as I said, a straight-up sexual fantasy.