Opening Nights: Rapture of the Deep

A musical memoir about religious epiphanies.

I suppose everyone's relationship to spiritual ecstasy is uniquely their own. I recently bought a greeting card for an agnostic friend of mine that shows an 18th-century painting of a man roused from slumber by a shimmering vision of the Messiah. Next to the luminescent apparition, the card creators inserted a word balloon over the waking penitent: It said simply "Trying to sleep here!!" Those singular religious epiphanies are plumbed to their depths in this new semi-autobiographical "play with music" by Eric Lane Barnes. Best known locally for his work with the Seattle Men's Chorus and innumerable performances at the recently defunct Martin's Off Madison piano bar, Barnes has put together a show that's surprisingly terrific, if a little rough. While his text remains unwieldy and the performance runs 20 minutes longer than it should, the characters are memorable, the acting excellent, the story intriguing, and the original music often spellbinding. Barnes' story revolves in concentric circles of religious conversions: First, there's baby evangelist Jimmy (Dylan Zucati, playing a role based on a real-life uncle), who wants to "play church" even as a preteen. Some 35 years later, his nephew Guy (Bobby Temple) falls under the spell of his best friend's mom, the recently converted Eileen (Alyssa Keene), whose daughter Bethany (Lauren Kottwitz) is a sort of post-goth Mama Cass with a filthy mouth, a none-too-secret crush on Guy, and alto pipes that ring out across the theater like a cathedral bell. There's a certain amount of repetition as we witness the characters transported by their own experience of demons and the Great Beyond. But the clutter clears often enough to see that Barnes' characters are distinct, and they're all fighting in the playwright's mind for stage time they deserve. Barnes' melodies are lovingly crafted to the standards of pre-gospel hymns, each one a little prayer set to music. That the blend of voices stops just short of perfection lends authenticity and serves as a reminder that this is a congregation, not American Idol tryouts. I haven't darkened a church doorway in decades, but it took me back to a time when I was a regular, and reminded me why it meant so much at the time. Finally we're left asking: What is the nature of belief in something we can't see or hear? And who's using whom in trying to save the great unwashed? As Neil Diamond once remarked when someone accused him of glorifying charlatans in his tent-revival set piece, Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show, people don't know they're being taken for a ride; they only know they've got hope they didn't have before. And in the end, even false hope is still hope.

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