The Pastor Phelps Project at Summerworks by Evan Webber

The Pastor Phelps Project: a fundamentalist cabaret

By Alistair Newton and the members of Ecce Homo

Directed by Alistair Newton
Musical Direction by Daniel Rutzen
Presented by Ecce Homo

Featuring Matthew Armet, Andrew Bathory, Adam Bolton, Raffaele Ciampaglia, Andrea Kwan, Evalyn Parry, Kaitlyn Regehr, Chy Ryan Spain, Kristine Steffansson, Carey William Wass

It could not begin better: outside, people hold signs and placards, repeating other people’s gestures, grimly attentive, ready for anything; and then we sneak into the luxe, faux-bordello interior of the Cameron House, which is all abuzz with rumours – ‘Apparently, Phelps has crossed the border… yes he’s on his way – and then we are ushered past the threshold and into the back of the Cameron, where we sit down in the fake foliage and the black velvet. It is our very own Heart of Darkness, and the real, live Kurtz is on his way! And then, music! The actors come out, and in a supremely ironic gesture, the whole world inverts, and what we see on the inside is exactly what is happening on the outside: people hold signs and placards, repeating other people’s gestures, grimly attentive, ready for anything…Director Alistair Newton pulls an immense amount of energy out of the cast who all play fast and loose and jump into the Bizarro-world with wonderful abandon. But inverting reality so completely like this can also lead to a general state of dizziness, and to a series of rather unsettling questions floating in the heads of the audience. When, for example, did this show actually begin? With Newton’s recent invitation to Phelps, published in Fab Magazine?

‘…You are so utterly loathsome, your ideas so mind-bendingly facile and your tactics so crassly ludicrous that you provide the perfect mirror to reflect the awesome stupidity of religious homophobia...’

Or with the reply from the Westboro Baptist Church?

‘…The Pastor Phelps Project is a tacky bit of filthy sodomite propaganda, with no literary merit and zero redeeming social value, masquerading as legitimate theatre. It is of the fags, by the fags, and for the fags…’

Certainly, the show started before it started In turn, the performance of the show itself feels like the emblem of a larger dialogue happening outside the theatre. This is (mostly) as it should be. Framing a bigger issue is something that theatre does, and the best achievement of Pastor Phelps is how it demonstrates the pleasure of this property through a style that is all beautiful, DIY cliché and sheer, skin-of-the-teeth exuberance.

The show-as-frame is so clear however, that we see the arguments inside it immediately. Pastor Phelps is not just an ironic name-calling session – that would reduce this show to a piece of fluff. Under the all mockery in the show is real fear; a more troubled, and more troubling, engagement with the notion of evil. It’s in the imagery and in the juxtaposition of texts; Phelps himself is not even a human, rather, he’s coin-operated nightmare puppet. (What currency activates him, we do not know, but it comes from the hand of an ‘innocent’ child.) He is beyond the pale. And if we laugh at him or his minions, it is not in recognition of his human frailty, but in the face of him as the enigma of evil itself.

In Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, Zizek writes about the enigma through the lens of the Holocaust, and I kept thinking about this while I was watching Pastor Phelps:
“Any attempt to locate [the Holocaust] in its context, to politicize it, is equivalent to the… negation of its uniqueness… However, this very depoliticization of the Holocaust, its elevation into the properly sublime Evil, the untouchable exception beyond the reach of ‘normal’ political discourse, can also be a political act of utter cynical manipulation, a political intervention aiming at legitimizing a certain kind of hierarchical political relation… at the expense of today’s radical political possibilities.'

This is what I was worried about.

Any performance that matters to people happens in the territory between the elevated sublime and the contextually politicized, and a little touch of evil can certainly build an atmosphere and help nose a story along. It’s hard work to avoid the consequent depoliticization-effect but it’s work well worth doing unless one wants to end up merely as Phelps’ liberal doppelganger; a Phelps-enabler, not by argument, but by attitude.

An example of a successful navigation of the obstacle: though there’s lots of genuinely sexy and disturbing moments, the most engaging and challenging parts in Pastor Phelps are the sections of verbatim text from the Tyra Banks Show (yes, there is a Tyra Banks Show, news to me) and from the on-camera meltdown of a Fox News anchor at one of Phelps’s deplorable funeral pickets. Both scenes are copied from television and staged with great restraint and sensitivity. And they stand out precisely because they do negate the uniqueness (they show us, instead, the banality) of evil: not only could this person be me; this person is me, and so deserves equal criticism and compassion.


Pastor Phelps is only one of a big handful of shows at this year’s SummerWorks that is explicitly dealing with fear, belief, and navigating the void of un-reason. (I count nine, including the One Reed show that I’m performing in, from the blurbs alone. I’m sure the number’s even higher.) Curatorial bias or unopposable Zeitgeist? Time, and a few more performances, may tell. Either way, it’s very exciting to see such a clear theme emerging in the festival programming. Hopefully it will lead to more, and better, conversations.

The Pastor Phelps Project plays:

Sat Aug 9 8:00pm
Sun Aug 10 3:00pm
Thu Aug 14 8:00pm
Fri Aug 15 8:00pm
Sat Aug 16 8:00pm
Sun Aug 17 3:00pm

The Cameron House


Jawsphobia said...

Obviously the sort of person who likes to haunt funerals and picket the family of the departed with promises of hellfire is over the top and easy to condemn. Easy pickins as a satirical target. So the comment about the banality of evil and "this could be me" is provocative. Will this play convince anyone or strictly preach to the choir and pat itself on the head while doing the liberal "Superior Dance" ?

If Pastor Phelps and his small following didn't exist they might have to be invented. I understand Kevin Smith's next project Red State, ostensibly "horror," takes on a Phelps character. I'm sure it will be fun, but they say a hero is only as great as his antagonist; how powerful is a Phelps, really? He's just someone who doesn't like you or doesn't like your speech, dress, music, and so on but (at least in North America) has no power to stop you.

On the other hand, Mr. T. can't make a snarky Snickers remark to a speed-walker without getting a commercial pulled because it offended a gay group. These are hyper-sensitive times.

Pastor Phelps and his ilk don't have the spending power to register as more than a blip. When I see all this buzz I'm reminded that there is no such thing as bad publicity. I'm also reminded that any time an Andrew Dice Clay or his heir Larry the Cable Guy sparks a belly laugh it is largely due to a climate where people are suffocated by the sense everyone in the media is running for office or walking on eggshells afraid of being sued for hurting someone's wee feelings.

I remember being shocked - and relief at the sensation of being shocked - that George Carlin once in a while called someone a faggot in the past few years, as did Tommy Chong. Some people need a little touch of crassness to make the lettuce grow.

Mary said...

" powerful is a Phelps, really? He's just someone who doesn't like you or doesn't like your speech, dress, music, and so on but (at least in North America) has no power to stop you."

I'm not so sure about that. Here in the USA, that kind of small-mindedness seems to be the driving force behind way too much.