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Mass Appeal at Auxiliary Dog

Mass Appeal
David Cooper Jr. and Steven Suttle
The title of thirty-year-old Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis conjures up a collection basket or hands clasped "Let us pray." Father Tim Farley, pastor at St Francis Church, and Seminarian Mark Dolson spar in a generation gap battle of youthful idealism versus careful pragmatism. Mark wants to be a priest who preaches the truth, to shake the complacent out of their lethargy and into action for social justice; Father Tim doesn't want anyone rocking his comfortable perch in a wealthy urban parish where he's loved and well-supplied with booze. The crisis comes when Tim is assigned to counsel Mark in his progress toward the priesthood because they each reject the other's values and behavior. (The facile script offers minimal character motivation.)

Having the action take place in the church office and pulpit gives Father Tim the power. While slyly gulping down donated wine, he fields calls from an unseen parish secretary, parishioners, and Monsignor Tom Burke. Periodically, Mark saunters in for lessons, chastisement, and heart-felt counsel. From the opening public challenge from Mark to comfortably settled Father Tim during his Sunday Mass "dialogue sermon" on ordaining women, we suspect that in the end both men will lose the world in order to gain their souls.

Tim advises Mark that the only way to survive in seminary or as a priest is to placate your superiors and congregation by giving them whatever they want. Lie to them. He considers himself a good priest because he makes everybody feel good about themselves. When counseling the afflicted in his flock, a slow stupid remark makes them feel exalted in their suffering. Mark, on the other hand, believes in comforting the genuinely afflicted in hospitals or prisons but afflicting the comfortable at St Francis.

Mark feels compelled to tell Msgr Burke, who holds the life or death axe over his future as a priest, that he has had bisexual experiences which lead him now to embrace a life of celibacy. Father Farley counsels Mark to lie as the lesser of two evils. If he doesn't lie, he'll be expelled by the "homophobic autocrat," the accusation Mark has already leveled at the seminary director. Tim suggests that Mark appeal to the masses in his congregation at Sunday Mass by giving a sermon that will charm them. He might be able to win them back after his first sermon, which totally bombed—a spirited appeal to the complacent to free themselves from their mink hats, cashmere coats, blue hair, the shackles of materialism.

In the end, Msgr Burke expels Mark for not lying or for telling the truth, and Tim preaches against this homophobic judgment from his Sunday pulpit, his final mass appeal to a congregation he's tried to please but not lead spiritually. He fears his good deed will be punished by his exile to one of the lower circles of hell, also known as a small town in Iowa. Both men lose their dream of the priesthood as they envisioned it, but Tim has more at stake than Mark.

Steven Suttle as Father Tim exhibits a proper mix of bluster and vulnerability. Suttle shows Farley's fear of not being loved or approved in his moving monologue about his perpetual guilt over his youthful rejection of his mother for not being perfect. He then builds to a credible conversion in the final moments when he overcomes his need for approval and gives his congregation the tough love that brings back his youthful memories of finding Christ in the ordinary people who listened to his sermons on street corners.

David Cooper Jr. creates Mark the firebrand as more charming than abrasive, smiling when the wrath of Jesus driving money changers out of the temple might have been more appropriate. He conveys a Mark at ease in his body and with his past—both with his silent wealthy family and what he calls "indulging my sexual ambivalence." Cooper's happy Mark so charmed the opening night Aux Dog audience that we can't imagine any congregation rejecting him.

Craig Stoebling, a veteran director of many Albuquerque shows, chose Mass Appeal to honor the memory of his mentor, Father Dan Cassiero. Under Stoebling's seasoned direction, the action moves swiftly toward the inevitable concluding crisis of conscience and loss for both characters. Scenes flow seamlessly from office to pulpit. Despite snappy dialogue, expert pacing of scenes, and an update of pop culture references, the play feels as uptight and dated as a Nehru jacket. Given the current bad press showered on Catholic clergy, not many audiences feel warm and fuzzy about priestly moral dilemmas.

Rather than try to make the action seem timeless and contemporary, I'd have preferred setting the play squarely in homophobic 1980, an era I know from personal experience when Church hierarchy trembled at any whiff of the love that dare not speak its name. [Full disclosure: During Tim Farley's fictional street preaching days in the early '60s (with a 1980 setting), I was a Dominican sister. My edited collection of true stories called Lesbian Nuns: Breaking Silence (1985) drew down the public wrath of the Bishop of Orlando, where I was living and teaching at the time.] In 2010, a new day of "don't ask don't tell" repeal, homophobia still grips the Msgr Burkes of the world, but the masses don't find bisexuality shocking.

Appealing to Albuquerque's fans of "Off-Off-Broadway," Auxiliary Dog Theatre tells us on its website that it doesn't aspire to be Top Dog. Managing Director Eli Browning named the theatre after a cocker spaniel he got in third grade—not his sister's English bulldog—but an auxiliary dog. The storefront performing and gallery space now sits up between the dorm side of the UNM campus and the Nob Hill section of Old Route 66/ Central Avenue, a few famous square miles of trendy shops and eateries. Aux Dog describes its rocky start: nobody showed up for opening night of the opening play in October 2007.

Now it's not only opening a new play a month, but opening its lobby to live music, improv, exhibits of paintings and sculpture, readings. This will attract fresh patrons into a community of artists and encourage donations to local charities such as Si Se Puede for underprivileged youth. Like all of the land of enchantment, Albuquerque flows with abundant creativity and culture but lacks money to keep the arts and the next generation thriving.

Mass Appeal by Bill C. Davis, directed by Craig Stoebling runs June 4-20, 2010, at Auxiliary Dog Theatre, 3011 Monte Vista NE in Albuquerque's historic Nob Hill neighborhood. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm. $15 general admission/ $12 seniors and students. For reservations call 505 254 7716 or visit www.auxdog.org.


Photo: Craig Stoebling

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-- Rosemary Keefe



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