If all the current contentions over faith and religion make you unsure about wanting to attend PlayMakers Repertory Company’s double bill of “The Christians” and “Tartuffe,” fear not.
Both productions are highly entertaining while providing nourishing food for thought. The pairing also shows off the company at its very best, technically and creatively.
Lucas Hnath’s 2015 Off-Broadway play, “The Christians,” takes place in a contemporary mega-church, where the popular pastor’s sermon concerns a revelation he’s had: the fire-and-brimstone version of Hell doesn’t exist. Instead, Hell is here on earth in the way people treat each other.
Despite the pastor’s good intentions, the idea disturbs many people, particularly his associate pastor, who confronts the pastor but can’t sway him, eventually leaving the church. An elder conveys his concern that the rift is causing others to leave. A congregant calls out the pastor for having shaken her faith, and even the pastor’s supportive wife feels torn.
Hnath gives equal time to both sides of the question without condescension or mockery, each character making a reasoned case. The characters use microphones throughout, logical because they would need them in a vast sanctuary but also effective in hearing the actors’ nuances of tone and mood.
Director Preston Lane’s polished production has satisfying focus that grows continually in power and engagement. Joey Collins makes the pastor so down-to-earth, it’s difficult to acknowledge he has flaws; Alex Givens fills the associate pastor with fervent, intractable conviction; and Jeffrey Blair Cornell exudes soothing calm masking iron determination. Nemuna Ceesay gains sympathy for a wife’s conflicted feelings, while Christine Mirzayan’s emotional congregant provides the show’s most gripping moments.
Molière’s classic, “Tartuffe,” has never been off the world’s stages since the 1660s, its sendup of a licentious man – posing as someone who is super-pious – a humorous but wise cautionary tale.
Director Saheem Ali’s concept is all lightness and air, full of energy, silliness and slapstick. He goes for universality by mixing contemporary and formal acting styles with a cast that dispenses with traditional racial and ethnic limitations. The result is a funny romp that still gets the message across, especially in David Ball’s clever modern adaptation.
Joey Collins is practically unrecognizable as Tartuffe, an oily conniver cheekily duping his host Orgon while secretly pursuing his wife, Elmire. Ray Dooley’s Orgon makes for many laughs as his exasperation grows with his household of disbelievers, while Nemuna Ceesay’s feisty Elmire firmly foils Tartuffe’s advances.
Shanelle Nicole Leonard practically steals the show with her sassy, no-nonsense maid, Dorine, who plots to expose Tartuffe along with Rishan Dhamija’s rational Cleante, Elmire’s brother, and Bradon Haynes’ hotheaded Damis, Orgon’s son.
Kathryn Hunter-Williams plays Orgon’s mother, Madame Pernelle, with stage-filling gusto and outrageously costumed girth, while April Mae Davis and Adam Poole cavort innocently as Orgon’s daughter and her suitor.
Alexis Distler’s stunning set design neatly morphs from sleek mega-church to chandelier-and-columns mansion, the latter a glowing backdrop in Oliver Watson’s lighting that highlights Anne Kennedy’s centuries-mixing costuming.
Seeing both shows in close proximity offers rewarding cross connections of casts and themes, a praiseworthy feat that sets the bar high for future PlayMakers’ productions.
What: “The Christians” and “Tartuffe”
Where: Joan H. Gillings Center for Dramatic Art, 250 Country Club Road, Chapel Hill
▪ “The Christians”: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17, 22-23, 27-28, March 3, 8-9; 2 p.m. Feb. 18, 24, March 4, 10.
▪ “Tartuffe”: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16, 20-21, 24, March 1-2, 6-7, 10; 2 p.m. Feb. 17, 25, March 11
Info: 919-962-7529 or playmakersrep.org