Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Edinburgh Fringe Religious comedy

GO BACK 15 years and you'd have been hard pushed to find God on the Fringe. But world events have changed all that. Last year, you couldn't move for people pretending to be Jesus. And this year there is another glorious cornucopia of companies exploring, questioning and poking fun at religion in all its guises.
reposted from Scotsman

Ca$h in Christ!


Imagine a spectrum stretching from actor Lance Pierson's dramatisation of Mark's Gospel (understairs @ Apostolic), to The Heresy Project (Laughing Horse @ Jekyll & Hyde) which, armed with blasphemy and a bit of philosophy, sets out to disprove the existence of God with a vitriol which makes Richard Dawkins look like the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Several shows draw their inspiration directly from the Bible, notably Linda Marlowe's Believe (Traverse), which draws on the stories of four women in the Old Testament, and Options of Life (C Venues) by Polish Company Unia Teatr Niemozliwy, which enacts lecture-parables on biblical characters by philosopher Leszek Kolakowski using exquisite sculptures as props. (The production is in Polish, but an English script is supplied.)

Others use religious myth as a jumping-off point for comedy. For God's Sake!, by the Seven Dwarves company from Huddersfield, focuses on the creation story. God is creating the world, but his stage manager and technical team are getting increasingly frustrated with his demands for firmaments and lightning bolts (there's health and safety to consider, after all, and don't get started on the unions). Their grumpiness and his petulance is wearing thin well before he sets off for a caravan in Bognor Regis to leave Adam and Eve to get the hang of procreation. Good material for a sketch, but an hour-long show is stretching it.

Slippery Fish's Christy Kulz and Charlie Revell do something similar in Original Sin. Angels Minona (Kulz) and Naomi (Revell) are manning the Department of Sin ("I'll be your absolutionist today!") but God is bored with the usual misdeeds and sends the pair to earth to find ten new sins. It's a good excuse to tie together a sequence of themed sketches and, though it is theologically muddled, it does produce some very funny moments from two very able performers.

Satirical duo God's Pottery were a hit last year on the Fringe, partly, I suspect, because we were all so relieved to see that Americans could laugh at fundamentalism. This year, the "Christian folk duo", with their toothy smiles and all-American wholesomeness (in God's Pottery Saves The World), need to prove they are more than a one-hit wonder. This time, they are tackling all the ills of the earth: "Why save one life when you can save the entire world?", which is ambitious but unwieldy (overpopulation, addiction, British people, and women are just some of the "problems" they tackle). In the end, the developing dynamic between Jeremiah and Gideon turns out to be the most interesting thing about the show. At their best, God's Pottery are razor-sharp satirists, but they need to make sure they stay sharp, particularly in their songs, which are the core of their act.

Bad haircuts are de rigueur in satirising evangelical Christianity, and so far Cash in Christ's Jonny Berliner is just ahead of God's Pottery's Gideon Lamb in the battle of the bowlcut. Both Berliner and co-star Van Badham have had individual successes on the Fringe, but come together in Cash in Christ as Bob and Fanny Comfort, senior pastors of mega-church Sunrise.

They have clearly done their homework, putting together a meticulously well observed show, drawing much of its script directly from church services and mixing soft-focus video testimonials with the Book Club (discussing "Pursuing Sexual Wholeness: How Jesus Heals The Homosexual") and frequent rounds with the collection bucket ("Remember, money equates to love...").

The best bits of the show are some seriously funny songs which hit the perfect balance between viciously satirical and irredeemably cheesy. This is what they're aiming for - a biting satire that exposes both the dangers and the ridiculousness of evangelical fundamentalism. As it is, much of the show is just very good character comedy. They just need to push the celestial envelope still further.

Fifteen years ago, a student company exploring Christianity on the Fringe would have been rare, but Paul Smith and Marc Graham of Hull University's Z Theatre Company have come up with Leave A Message, which examines issues around Christianity in a series of vignettes.

The stories produce some very promising performances - a girl who finds God and loses her boyfriend in the process, the son of a preacher who can't tell his father he's gay, the new "face" of Christian Crusaders doubting his role as a Christian sex symbol, a soldier in Iraq who's "fighting for God" - though the end result is fragmented. It doesn't leave a message, but it asks a number of interesting questions.

So Rick Miller's one-man show Bigger Than Jesus stands head, shoulders and crown of thorns above the competition - but if you're expecting straight comedy from the man who brought us MacHomer, you'll be disappointed. Although there are plenty of laughs here, it's a rich, cerebral examination of Jesus and his legacy.

Miller moves through a series of characters: an academic (The Church of the Rational Mind), a charismatic preacher (The Church of Me), a flight attendant on a celestial plane ("Coffee? Tea? Miracle?") before stepping into the sandals of Jesus himself. Co-written with Daniel Brooks, Bigger Than Jesus asks how a Jewish man living 2,000 years ago came to found a movement over which blood has been shed and money made, all the way from the Oval Office to the box office.

Miller makes clear at the outset that he is not a believer, but his show stands apart from the articulate cynicism of people like John Murphy, who created last year's The Heretic. Loosely structured like a Catholic mass, and helped by the ecclesiastical setting of St George's West, his show has an uncanny reverence. It manages to hold in tension the intellectual questions surrounding literal faith and the fact that its rituals and language are nevertheless capable of bestowing on us something beyond ourselves.

• Until 27 August. Tomorrow 9.20pm

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