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transFigures

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

transFigures
David Adkins and Marguerite Stimpson
Photo by Carol Rosegg

"Are religious people brain-damaged, or am I mapping the existence of God?"

In many shows, a statement that potentially incendiary could inspire paroxysms of eye-rolling. Yet it's not only right at home but even respectful within the textured realm of transFigures. This curious show, which was conceived and directed by Lear deBessonet and has just opened at the Julia Miles Theatre, lassos both science and spirit into a compelling, kaleidoscopic examination of what it means to live in a world that often forces your convictions into predefined patterns.

The chief vehicle for that message here is Jerusalem Syndrome, an actual disorder that leads seemingly sane people visiting the ancient city to develop overwhelming religious predilections that cause them to construct toga-like garments and parade to holy sites to deliver sermons. Yes, it reads like a bad television plot device, and could just as well serve as the launching point for an all-out comedy about what fools we mortals can be.

But she afflicts only one of her characters with it: Bill (David Adkins), an ordinary businessman visiting Jerusalem with his wife Susan (Marguerite Stimpson) who's unconvinced whether there's a distinction between God and superstition. So deBessonet sees the illness as a serious symptom of a much greater malady: an uncertain existence. And in suffering from that, Bill is very much not alone - he's only the most recent victim of a centuries-spanning problem.

transFigures
T. Ryder Smith
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Also depicted as part of the ongoing struggle against an ill-defined normalcy are figures as diverse as Joan of Arc, John Salvi (who went on a murderous rampage at an abortion clinic), and a young man named Joshua suffering from a "hyper-religiosity" that slowly begins consuming his life. In one late scene, both Joan (Juliana Francis) and John (T. Ryder Smith) defend against simultaneous inquisitions in a harrowing look between faith and insanity; the cure for Joshua (Dylan Dawson), instigated at the behest of an experimental doctor (Smith again), exists in its own strange state of medical instability.

As the show unfolds, taking in writings from authors as diverse as Bathsheba Doran, Henrik Ibsen, and Chuck Mee, you begin to understand just how blurry the line is between belief in God and belief in science. The final scene, which becomes a broken-down bacchanalia of ropes, Post-It notes, and self-destruction, even suggests there's no longer any difference between the two: When taken to unnatural extremes, both can lead you to the same dangerous place.

The acting ensemble is generally excellent, though the sad, desperate strength Adkins brings to his would-be prophet makes Bill the show's most plangently human presence. Of the others, only Francis disappoints, though not as her stately Saint Joan: In her earlier role as a needy, nerdy secretary with a prayer for Bill to convey to God's Jerusalem P.O. box, her attempted connection to societal disconnection comes dangerously close to overacting.

Excess, in fact, is the greatest weakness of transFigures. While its set or lighting (by Jenny Sawyers and Ryan Mueller) conservatively outline a wealth of realistic and fantastical playing spaces, deBessonet's staging and especially Andrea Haenggi's choreography too often mistake busyness for energy. They have no compunction against filling the stage with multiple modern-dance writhe-a-thons, which sometimes convey the characters' "craziness" but too often detract from the true inner turmoil of people who can't understand why everyone doesn't see the world as they do.

However, seen as yet another reflection of the show's primary theme, stated by one character as "the relationship between art and atrocity," it's never much more than temporarily distracting. And in the finale, when most of the cast revels about the stage - some in pain, some in joy, but all at last individuals - there's real beauty in their feeling. Another one of the show's questions asks, "Did God create the brain, or did the brain create God?", but this scene - and most of transFigures - affectingly demonstrates they're more or less the same thing.


transFigures
Through May 6
Julia Miles Theater, 424 West 55th Street between 9th & 10 Avenues
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes with no intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatermania