By Rick Roberts
Directed by Brian Rabinowitz
Produced by Polemic Theatre Company
At The Royal George Gallery Theatre, Chicago
One Person Short of a Trinity, Two Persons Long on Wind
For its inaugural production, Polemic Theatre Company (PTC) opened this week with the world premiere of Rick Roberts’ “controversial” new play Thee Trinity. Founded on the principle that “theatre should evoke discussion” and following the modern logic that “nothing starts discussion better than controversy” (although one might think a question would suffice), PTC, “Through the Freedom [sic] of language and subsequently speech,” hopes to evoke “change” by exploring controversial ideas of a “socio-economic and socio-political nature” while, at the same time, giving “a strong voice to all sides of the discussion” (contrary to what the first definition of “polemic” might otherwise suggest).
That being stated, I found Thee Trinity to be an odd choice for PTC’s first production, as its ideas were neither intellectually radical enough to engender controversy nor evenly voiced enough to evoke discussion — let alone coherent enough to inspire anything like “change.” A two-hour, pell-mell rant of assorted attitudes and ideas on science, the Christian Church, sin, divine justice, religious hypocrisy and fundamentalism, and sundry religious beliefs presented as ridiculous and not worthy of serious, theological consideration (e.g. Transubstantiation), Thee Trinity is less a satire on its subject(s) than a meta-satire on itself, exemplifying our nation’s current inability to conceive of any “discussion” that is not ignorantly one-sided and confusedly reasoned. Far too jejune and unfocused to approach anything like intellectual “controversy,” Thee Trinity relies upon puerile humor (e.g. “second coming;” “succumb”) and popular opinions (e.g. science can be used for good and evil ends; Jesus was a wise, spiritual man) to distract its audience from the vacuity of its otherwise unexplored claims — to which only the most liberally (un)enlightened among its audience might offer a chortle of assent, and the most conservatively sensitive a grunt of ire.
The time is now; the place is heaven, apparently some kind of conference room. God has just called a State of Humanity meeting, and those present are only the most notorious, divine movers-and-shakers: Jesus (a.k.a. “Jay;” Mike Jimerson), the self-absorbed, namby-pamby Son of God and second person of the Trinity; the Holy Spirit (a.k.a. “Holly;” Jocelyn Adamski), the jealous and underappreciated third person the Trinity; Lucifer (a.k.a. “Lucy;” Laura Stuart Obenauf), the sexually and spiritually provocative tempter and . . . seeker of truth/knowledge?; Archangel Gabriel (a.k.a. “Gabe;” Elias Rios), the flamboyantly gay secretary of heaven; and Archangel Michael (a.k.a. backwardly conservative; Adam Thatcher), the traditional-minded, security and strong arm of heaven. As for God: He is suspiciously absent. Yet they go on with the meeting anyway, for, as one attendee suggests, He always knows what’s happening.
Following introductions, the attendees begin to tackle the agenda laid out by God. First is the matter of disgruntled saints, apostles, and prophets, some of whom are attempting unionization, all of whom are utterly bored. A motion is presented to introduce more entertainment into heaven: Lucifer offers to handle the matter herself, pleasure of course being her forte; Jesus turns down Lucifer’s offer as well as the idea of building an amusement park, and instead suggests a film-screening of his life and deeds. Suffice it to say this matter is concluded, the specifics of which bear no significance on the remainder of the play.
Second on the agenda is a survey of catastrophic events from the 20th and 21st centuries. With little-to-no elaboration they are practically summed-up in two words: war, holocaust. Let the record show: Jesus looked grieved.
This leads to the next issue on the agenda: Jesus’ “Second Coming.” After mining this phrase’s sexual pun for all its worth, Lucifer claims that the “Anti-Christ” is already present on the earth and that, contrary to expectation, he/she/it is not a single person but rather the legion of narcissistic, earthly egos, whose proliferation has been facilitated by the rise of internet-technology and social media, two creations in which Lucifer has had a proud hand (interesting to note: Mark Zuckerberg is possessed). This encourages Jesus, who is eager to enter the limelight once more.
The last matter on the agenda is basically a Q&A with some hand-selected “corporeal souls” in order to determine how they are taking to the afterlife. Albert Einstein (Andrew J. Pond), an inhabitant of heaven, is summoned, and for the remainder of the play he continually interjects scientific hypotheses regarding multiple universes, the Higgs Boson, and the reduction of all earthly and divine existence to energy — all of which claims challenge Jay and Holly’s faith and understanding of their existence, yet to which they bizarrely offer no theological defense (contemporary Christian apologists such as Dr. William Lane Craig apparently not making Mr. Roberts’ reading list).
Next, we meet Oscar Wilde (David Schaplowsky), another inhabitant of heaven yet one who is currently having a damned good time vacationing in the outer circles of hell (because that is apparently a thing one can do). Aside from showing that God is not a homophobe and that heaven’s admission standards have followed the standards of the day, I have no idea why Wilde is here. So that’s that.
Last to be invited is an inhabitant of hell, one attendee we all can raise our pitchforks in accord and condemn as objectively evil: Osama Bin Laden (Scott Minches). Not surprisingly, aside from a few stock lines about being a devoted follower of the divinely inspired Muhammad (an inhabitant of heaven, mind you), Bin Laden doesn’t get many words in in his defense (such an idea, apart from being inconceivable, would just be too “controversial”). But Lucifer does vividly describe his eternal, righteous punishment: continually pursued by 72, burly, male “virgins,” Bin Laden must either perform fellatio on their insatiably erect members, or otherwise suffer the pains and even greater ignominy of being gang-raped. Justice: served.
After Bin Laden is chased out of the room, the question of how this spectacle will end hangs on the play’s momentum like a millstone. Yet Lucifer, eternally loquacious, continues to harass the silent, limp-wristed Jesus with open-ended questions, such as the stock fodder of debate: the existence of evil and humanity’s culpability in its sin. The real paradox, however, is Lucifer’s sympathy for the humans whom she be both tempts and punishes. But this along with the other theological dilemmas are succinctly solved with the familiar refrain — “it’s God’s plan, it’s God’s fault.” (Significant to note: only Michael speaks-out confidently in God’s defense — but he is represented as being so simple-mindedly traditionalistic that even Jesus summarily dismisses him with a “get thee behind me”-esque fury.)
After it becomes clear that God will not be showing His face, the now downcast and doubt-riddled Jesus and Holy Spirit exit quietly with hung heads, while Einstein and Lucifer, the victors-apparent, skip off to consummate their mutual lust, leaving Gabriel and Wilde to flirt a moment longer before the lights finally dim and we may go in peace.
As this admittedly sloppy synopsis might suggest, Thee Trinity is as difficult a play to follow as it is to comprehend: verily I say unto thee, it defies both succinct synopsis and coherent analysis. This is not because so very much happens (very little happens, in fact), but rather because Mr. Roberts introduces so many questions and claims (excepting the scientific, most unexceptionally sophisticated) in so disorganized and tangential a manner that — due to the brevity of their exploration — they are simply impossible to consider thoughtfully, if at all.
Clearly, Mr. Roberts’ aims are to entertain and to provoke intellectual debate; and these are closely linked insofar as the ideas he presents are often capped with humor that is itself provocative. However, the humor Mr. Roberts employs is so often base and carnal — such as the repeated puns made on the terms “relativity” and “Second Coming” — that it undermines the play’s claim to intellectual seriousness (not to mention its claim to being funny).
Moreover, the sheer number of ideas Mr. Roberts litters haphazardly throughout his play and the pedantically conclusive manner in which they are expounded (without rebuttal from likely contra-dictors, Jesus and the Holy Spirit) further impressed on me that Mr. Roberts’ obvious attempts at “controversy” were intellectually ungrounded and not seriously considered. Merely scattering scientific and philosophical claims like buckshot and mixing in some sexy jokes does not amount to a “controversial” satire — particularly when they all turn against a largely conservative perspective, the perennial scapegoat and underrepresented voice of (Chicago) theatre.
As for the other elements of PTC’s production, there is not much to say. The set is adorned barely (by Alec Long) — one thinks to focus our attention on the intellectual content of the play — and the acting satisfies what one might expect from a satire. I will say that David Schaplowsky’s Oscar Wilde was by far the most captivating and fully-lived character present. And that is saying something because his character serves no purpose other than to offer wit and observations.
After two days of struggling to unpack what exactly Mr. Roberts is trying to say in Thee Trinity — why the ambiguously characterized Lucifer and Einstein (science) get the last word; why Jesus does not theologically defend himself; what significance it all bears on the conclusion — I have arrived at no greater insight other than Mr. Roberts does not saying anything clearly — if in fact he does say anything at all. Yet, as one can posit for any obtuse play whose aim is “discussion:” perhaps these are the very questions we are supposed to be asking. Indeed, perhaps this is all part of Mr. Roberts’ plan — including his curiously illiterate title, Thee Trinity. When asked in a recent interview if there was any reason for the double “e,” Mr. Roberts stated: “Because it’s biblical. You see a lot of it in the bible so I wanted to specify that but even that is a little tongue-in-cheek.” At least to me, that is a reasoning that speaks true — for the whole of the play.
Reviewed on 27 August 2016.
Playing at the Royal George Theatre Gallery Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., Chicago. Tickets are $30. For tickets and information, call the Royal George box office at 312-988-9000, or visit TheRoyalGeorgeTheatre.com. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. through October 1. Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one, 10-minute intermission.