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Tent Meeting

CATEGORY : MUSICAL
by Morris Ertman & Ron Reed

COMPANY : Theatrical Outfit [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Balzer Theatre @ Herren's [WEBSITE]
ID# 3301

SHOWING : March 11, 2009 - April 05, 2009

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

What common threads bind together the owner of a local pool-hall, an embittered and embattled farmer, an agonizingly self-concious preacher, and the traveling evangelist whose truck has broken down en route to a revival? Why, a passion for toe-tapping gospel music, of course! In infectious four-part harmony, "Tent Meeting" chronicles one parched day in the 1930s life of a small prairie town, and Theatrical Outfit is pleased to be introducing this Canadian blockbuster to American audiences. Nominated for an Elizabeth Stirling Haynes award for Outstanding Musical in Edmonton and four Dora Mavor Moore awards, including Best New Musical and Best Production, "Tent Meeting" is a truckload of fun.


CAST & CREW LIST
Scenic Designer Jon Nooner
Pastor Ernest Douglas/Ben Reimer Andrew Houchins
Dolly Hoveland Shayne Kohout
George Hoveland/Bob Lefsrud Daniel May
Sam Lundquist/Angus McPhee Glenn Rainey
Reverend Elroy Phillips Geoff Uterhardt
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REVIEWS

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Preaching to the Choir
by Dedalus
Saturday, March 28, 2009
2.0
First things first. My negative reaction to this production in no way reflects on the fine work, the excellent work, by the cast and production team. This is one of the best-acted, best-sung, and best-designed plays of the year (not unexpected considering the talents involved).

Before beginning my tirade, I should also note that mine is no doubt a minority opinion. The audience I was with cheered enthusiastically, and even tossed around the occasional “Amen!” If I am any judge, and, to risk over-generalizing, I daresay this will be a favorite for anyone with an evangelical mindset, or with a fondness for gospel music.

That being said, I have to say that I hated almost every minute of this play, and I found myself storming from the theatre in ”high dudgeon” anger. And, to be honest, this is 100% a result of my own mindset and the way this play goes offensively counter to everything I believe (or more accurately, disbelieve). I think my reaction (and presumably that of other skeptics/atheists/agnostics) will be very similar to those of devout Christians to plays like “Corpus Christi” or the works of Robert Mapplethorpe.

To recap the plot, a gospel quartet has “come home” to a remote Canadian farming community, the home of their leader, Reverend Elroy Phillips (a remarkably restrained Geoff Uterhardt). While there, they set up a Tent Revival, while Reverend Elroy faces the drought-induced poverty of his hometown and the angry skepticism of his lifelong friend George Hoveland (Daniel May, sporting an angry scowl and an angrier Canadian accent). Not much else happens. They sing a lot of traditional gospel sings in beautiful four-part harmony, accompanied by Shayne Kahout as George’s wife Dolly. It seems Reverend Elroy avoided George and Dolly’s wedding because of his own feelings towards Dolly, and things have been tense between them all ever since. However, all conflict is miraculously resolved by a contrived application of Praise-the-Lord absurdity and outright hypocrisy (Who cares whether you believe or not -- as long as you say you do, everything will be fine!).

Not to be too blunt about it, but when I heard the reverend in his sermon advise these destitute, modern dust-bowl victims that “there is a cool drink of water in your kitchen if you’ll only open your eyes,” I wanted to shout out BULLSHIT! This is a cruel, even sadistic thing to say to those on the edge of despair. It’s evangelical crap, no better than a con man promising pie-in-the-sky cures for everything, or, closer to current events, Bernie Madoff promising riches for nothing. And I consider the purveyors of it no higher on the ethical scale. To say “it gives them hope” is a weasley dodge, because it puts the blame on those who, as expected, will find only dust coming out of that kitchen pump – “It’s your own fault, because you didn’t believe hard enough!”

And yet, this play is firmly on the reverend’s side. Everyone blames George for his situation, as if he personally caused the drought, as if he intentionally alienated his wife (who can’t accept his rejection of her faith). His protests are met with overtly smug we-know-better-than-thou-because-we-BELIEVE reactions, and, in the final moments, he makes an overtly false “conversion” for the sole purpose of saving his marriage. A laudable goal in many situations, but I couldn’t help think, if Dolly is this alienated, if the conflict in faith is ALL that binds them, perhaps the marriage SHOULDN’T be saved.

But, praise the Lord and pass the Snake Oil, we have to have our blissfully blind certainty affirmed, so George’s conversion (his rejection of his own principles) is the happiest of endings this playwright could conceive. It made me want to vomit.

To get off my emotional high horse and to return to a more theatrical analysis, a more conceptual problem with the play is the curious choice to double George (and two other local characters) with members of the Gospel quartet. George is such a strong, well-defined character, that to see him transforming into the singer by the simple device of buttoning the top button of his shirt, is a distraction and a cheat. Andrew Houchins gives a wonderful performance as a nervous local pastor, but he too is forced to abandon the character to sing along. Most problematic is Glenn Rainey, also playing two characters, but playing them exactly the same (with both directly addressing the audience), that I could never tell when he was playing which. More to the point, Mr. May and Mr. Houchins give such strong performances in their principle roles, it’s an actual shock to see them fall into such bland sameness for their quartet roles. The characters have names, but no character, no individuality, nothing that makes them any different from any other member of the quartet.

Maybe this is something else that added to my anger – this homogenized, blandly identical personality-set being put forward as the ideal, as the goal to be achieved, as the model the stark individuality of George must follow to achieve happiness. If this is supposed to be “heaven,” is it any wonder so many of today reject the concept?

Maybe if I had more of a taste for the style of music being presented here (and much of this play comes across as a concert – at one point in Act II the four actors simply stand in a row, singing several songs back-to-back), I would have been better disposed to appreciate the real talent on display here and to write off the plot as “acceptable, but not my cup of tea.”

Maybe even if some original songs had been included rather than a “best of” collection from the “Old Time Religion” songbook.

Maybe if the thin plot had involved something more than a simple love triangle.

Maybe if the actors weren’t so good at their jobs, making believe they actually lived these delusions.

Maybe if, like George, I abandoned all my disbeliefs and principles, this play would not have pushed all my faith-resistant emotional buttons.

As it was, for me, watching “Tent Meeting” was like spending an evening with a used-car salesman. One who continually ran his fingernails across a blackboard.

Obviously, I’m not the choir being preached to here.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

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