Is Christianity the new "hot" pop culture phenomenon? Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has been going strong at the box office for three weeks, and now comes Handcart Ensemble's production of Danish playwright's Kaj Munk's rather mundane Christian play Ordet. Though made into a movie in 1955 where it went on to win a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, it's not surprising that the play hasn't seen much recent action.
First written in 1925, Ordet is a play about faith and belief in Christianity, and doesn't shirk from hiding its tedious and oft-repeated theological politics. Munk, after all, was a pastor by profession and, in addition to being a playwright, had his own Christian ministry. Subsequently, it's easy to tell where Munk's heart and head lie with this material. As this is essentially a religious play (as opposed to a play about religion, a distinction I will draw in a moment), the nuances and craft of fine playwrighting are overlooked at the expense of the play's "Message" (with a capital M), that being that one needs to maintain faith and belief in God and miracles, even in trying times and circumstances.
Ordet's premise is quite straightforward, if flimsy. Danish patriarch Borgen (Bob Armstrong) is ideologically opposed to Reuben (Bill Tatum) who practices a differing and seemingly dour form of Christianity. That wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that Borgen's son Anders (James Mack) wants to marry Reuben's daughter, Esther (Angela Brinton). Things become even more strained when Borgen's pregnant daughter-in-law Inger (Jennifer Gawlik) becomes severely ill while going into labor and suddenly dies. Mixed in with these proceedings are Inger's husband Mikkel (Todd Parmley), a pastor (Bob Harbaum) and Johannes (Tom Martin), Borgen's other son, who, having watched his girlfriend die, has become mentally unstable. Johannes, suffering from the shock of tragedy, believes that he is Jesus, much to the chagrin and doubt of his family and other townspeople. The "touched" Johannes is constantly preaching resurrection a la Christ, and we all know what happens when you've got a religious play with a Jesus wannabe and a dead body in it, right?
With the exception of Bob Armstrong as the strong Borgen family patriarch, the rest of the cast is largely lackluster and unmemorable. It might not be their fault, though, as Munk hasn't really created three-dimensional characters that we care about. As the main goal of this work is ultimately the spreading of its religious message, the characters become empty vessels, solely there to spread the word of Munk. Neither J. Scott Reynolds's plodding direction nor set designer Douglas Flandro's bleak and ascetic set design helps the actors much with their chores.
Which brings me to my point about religious theater vs. theater that is about religion. The difference between such plays is significant, if subtle in construction. In religious theater, it's not only that the on-stage conflict needs to be resolved, but that in the end, the audience is essentially "saved" as well and made to identify with the "correct" religious standpoint of the play's protagonist. Furthermore, in religious theater, because we know that the plays needs to end with a reaffirmation of belief in God, Christ, or some combination therein, the play's main struggle, which is made to seem overwhelming and insurmountable, feels much more like a contrived event with little suspense. Maintaining interest in a play with a foregone conclusion is a tough act indeed and Munk's dialogue is hardly the stuff of mental acrobatics. On the other hand, in theater about religion where faith, religious values, and belief are tested (such as David Rambo's God's Man in Texas, the play's core is driven by strong characters and a struggle where the outcome is uncertain. Answers, if they come at all, are often tenuous, complex, and ambiguous, allowing the audience to truly think through the issues that the play has posed. Such is what drives great theater.
Maybe like Ordet wants to advocate, you have to be a believer to "get it." Good theater should be engaging to everyone, though, regardless of one's religious beliefs. Munk's play, at least in this production, doesn't fulfill that mission. If there's one thing I'm a believer in, it's well-wrought theater, and this play just hasn't made a convert out of me.