Religious cults are secretive by nature, so there are always people who want to unveil their secrets.
An HBO documentary, Going Clear, drops the dime on Scientology, one of the world’s largest cults. An indie hit at this year’s Sundance, Holy Hell, reveals the life of the much smaller Buddha Field. Each seeks to tell — and understand — the story of the group as a whole.
The End Times, now onstage in Los Feliz, takes a different tack. Playwright Jesse Mu-En Shao focuses our attention on a single member’s crisis of faith, leaving the larger group’s story offstage.
Tim arrives at college to live in a house owned by a community known as “The Lord’s Restoration.” He has never lived outside the community — his parents are members. Tim shares a bunk-bed with a lifelong friend, Evan; the girl he’s loved since childhood, Ruthann, lives in the nearby women’s house.
Cracks begin to appear immediately, as Evan balks at signing the lease — really a behavioral contract — proffered by the slightly older house supervisor, Jamie. Soon, Evan disappears, and no one in the house will speak of him. Tim pleads to be allowed to seek his friend; Jamie agrees, if Tim will report whatever he learns.
Finding the distraught Evan, and learning the real reasons for his absence, Tim starts to lose his hold on his lifelong faith. Meanwhile, Evan’s bed is taken by an eager convert, Seth, who also displaces Tim in Ruthann’s affections. At the climax, Tim leaves the house forever, and finds himself in a world he’s never really seen before.
The End Times risks making us feel dissatisfied — the questions we have about what a cult is, how it works, are never discussed. Instead, it offers us Tim’s journey, from happy childish dependency through uncertain vacillation and fear, to a final desperate assertion that feels more like suicide than freedom. Instead of telling us how a cult exerts its hold, and what the damaging effects are, it shows us.
This demands delicacy and skill from the artists performing it.
Nick Cimiluca, as Jamie, deftly shows us a half-adult trapped in the adolescent world he governs — a nice guy with an iron hand who utterly defers to the unseen elders yet makes unguided decisions when he can get away with it, unable to form relationships outside the faith’s endless rituals and childhood games. The role is a daunting one, and Cimiluca handles it remarkably well.
As Tim, Christian T. Chan faces an equal challenge: We must see (without being told) how his faith has sustained him, yet failed to equip him. Chan creditably embodies Tim’s naivete, his need for the cult’s “comfort food,” and his awkward attempts to express his feelings and assert his questions. But every youth at college is immature, and playwright Shao may need to give us a clearer way to see how Tim’s immaturity differs from that of his non-cult peers.
The role of Evan — to which Matt Pascua brings honesty and energy — demands rapid shifts from shy questioning to an open challenge of Jamie’s authority (which we never see), to hard-drinking despair in a rented room just a few days later. Shao must do more to motivate and explain these precipitous changes.
Mariah Robinson (as Ruthann) and Alexander Pimentel (as Seth) do what they can with roles that verge on being one-dimensional. Both actors are called upon to display ambivalence, and do so. But what else is going on for this fresh (and opportunistic) convert? Or for this young woman who suddenly casts aside her lifelong fiancé? The players may have backstories in mind; but until the playwright says something, we’ll never know.
Finally, a word about Nelson, the cult’s leader. He’s played by Joe Spano, a veteran actor, who gives us a heady brew of loving concern, bristling authority, and sly casuistry all at once. And in a brilliant choice, he never appears onstage — instead, he arrives (usually unannounced) in multiple project images on all three walls, his face and voice engulfing the house and its residents. These harrowing moments give us a visceral metaphor that responds to all our unanswered questions. Praise to projection designer Lily Barnstein, set designer Christopher Scott Murillo, and director Jon Lawrence Rivera for pulling off this thrilling — and chilling — coup de theatre.
The publicity materials and Facebook page for The End Times make clear that Shao’s been wrestling with this material for several years, and that it’s autobiographical. (Oddly, the printed program omits this.) By determinedly pursuing what could have been mere self-indulgence, Shao has opened a distinctive and valuable window into the secret world of religious cults. The play may not yet fully embody its promise, but it’s already an engaging tale and fully deserves continued effort.
The End Times, by Jesse Mu-En Shao, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Skylight Theatre Company and Playwrights’ Arena, at the Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., LA 90027.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30,
Sundays at 3:00,
through May 15.
Tickets: <www.SkylightTheatreCompany.com> or <www.playwrightsarena.org>
Reinforcing Jamie, the only live presence of the cult’s authority,
Their basic belief is that Jesus is returning very soon, and they are to meet him as his bride.
is a fairly Skillfully used projections give us enough glimpses to recognize that
a play several years in the making (via LA Playwrights ArenaJe),