Maybe there's something in the air, but two plays at local storefront theaters got that old-time religion all over them. Well, maybe it's not so old-timey. Both pieces, Keith Bunin's A Busy World Is Hushed, which opens Friday at Theatre Out, and Fengar Gael'sThe Cantor's Tale, which opened last weekend at the Hunger Artists Theatre, are contemporary tales in which issues of sexuality coexist with those of dogma and faith.
In the first, which opened in 1996 (The New York Times called it an "engaging if too tidy family drama about conflicts of faith"), an Episcopalian priest/professor named Hannah has discovered a fifth Gospel, one that predates those penned by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and may have been the source for all four. Though possessed of firm faith, the priest is skeptical of church dogma, which attracts Brandt, a stymied writer who gave up his faith years ago, to attempt to ghostwrite Hannah's latest book. Brandt's appearance coincides with the return of Hannah's prodigal son Thomas, who happens to be gay and hits on Brandt.
The mother-son-employee/boyfriend triangle drives A Busy World Is Hushed, which doesn't use Hannah as a convenient method to criticize orthodox Christianity's homophobia. Why else does she say at one point, "You'd be hard-pressed to find a single word from the historical Jesus that condemns homosexuality. Any unpleasant rhetoric of that nature has been entirely invented by frightened bigots who need to make demons of their fellow men because they're too cowardly to confront the demons within their own souls"?
Sexuality of a more conventional nature is at the heart of The Cantor's Tale. Duncan, a young seminarian, approaches Father Pru and tells him he wants to leave the seminary in order to get married. Outraged, Pru uses every weapon at his disposal to discredit Duncan's love interest, including spreading rumors, writing anonymous letters, keeping Duncan distracted with duties and finally invoking Satan himself.
Along the way, Pru begins hearing from his troll-like alter ego (a real flesh-and-blood character that Pru never sees), and we learn that the good Father has his own demons he must exorcise.
In promotional material attached to the show, Gael wrote that she intended to write a play "attempting to conjure the most misogynistic character to ever cast a shadow on a stage. Instead, what evolved was a troll story of passion and betrayal." Not having seen these shows, I can't comment on their respective merits, but this much is clear: both are firmly in the aesthetic wheelhouse of their respective entities. Theatre Out, which launched in 2006, bills itself as "Orange County's Gay and Lesbian Theatre," and its plays often are written by gay or lesbian playwrights, such as Tennessee Williams or Jonathon Larson, or explore some aspect of sexuality. It's a theater that, to its great credit, has never wavered from its mantra.
The Hunger Artists, which began in 1998, is a more inclusive theater that has always had new work as part of its mission. From its self-generated plays to work from emerging writers such as Johnna Adams and Jason Linder, the troupe is more committed to new work than any other local storefront. Along with Gael's world premiere, the company will stage its fifth playwrights festival, Beyond Convention V, in December. Also, every Saturday after every play opening this year, Literary Manager David Yu will host a new play-reading series. The most recent, in December, featured Brittany Garms' Natalie Portman: The Musical.
The Busy World Is Hushedat Theatre Out, Empire Theatre, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 826-8700; www.theatreout.com. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Feb. 5. $15-$18.
The Cantor's Taleat the Hunger Artists Theatre, 699-A S. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 680-6803; www.hungerartists.net. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through Jan. 30. $15-$18.