Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist

"Don't make the mistake of believing that because you weren't punished immediately for a sin that there is no God or that sin goes unpunished. If you steal or lie or blaspheme against Him, God isn't going to hit you with a lightning bolt or turn you into a pillar of salt. He will give you space and time to repent. In some cases, that will be years. But ultimately, if you don't repent, you will be punished."

-Dave Sim

Is The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist a deconstructionist take on faith and one's submission to the will of God, an examination on our culture's sick obsession with pharmaceuticals, or the longest dick joke in theatrical history? Whatever it is, Dan Trujillo is playing a very crafty shell game with his newest play, The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist. It's kind of brilliant.

I know writing "kind of brilliant" sounds like damning with faint praise, but I don't mean to be. The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist doesn't just take cheap potshots at the faithful (or faith) or at those of the more atheistic persuasion. Instead, it is a very sly and crafty show that challenges and toys with the audiences' preconceptions and expectations.

The play opens with a huckster salesman (Daryl Lathon) selling the audience Viagra, wondering, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if people always offered a fair deal, this for that, honesty, no tricks, no subterfuges?" When a flimflam salesman asks this, we know he's offering anything but.

The salesman asks the audience if anyone is willing to try his Viagra for free. Two members of his audience, a husband and wife, come down to accept. The wife (Jennifer Gordon Thomas) announces that her husband (Abe Goldfarb) is impotent, much to the husband's chagrin. To humor her, he takes the pill, and is told that it takes an hour to take effect.

So, in the meantime, the three characters decide to relay a story about an atheist who steals a statue of Baby Jesus from a nativity scene and dismembers it, proving (or attempting to prove) that if the Christian God exists, there would be some sort of retribution. A miracle would prevent him from committing the deed, or God would punish him, or something.

However, not everything goes according to the atheist's plan. The Baby Jesus bleeds when it is cut open. The atheist burns his hands when he tries to disfigure the statue with acid. Then, through a series of bizarre and unfortunate events, the atheist finds himself in prison, and on Death Row.

Still, he refuses to believe. He refuses to submit himself to the will of God. He refuses to get down on his knees and pray.

Now, I will absolutely not give away the ending, except to say that yes, the two stories (the one about the atheist and the one about the couple buying black market Viagra) converge. And that said convergence is about as big a deliberate "Screw You" to the audience as you can get. Again, I mean that as a compliment.

The three actors ably perform multiple roles, slipping in and out of different costumes and playing different characters with ease (Lathon, Thomas and Goldfarb are all billed in the program as themselves). Isaac Butler smoothly directs this modern-day vaudeville story-within-a-story (Trujillo himself has referred to the play as "an unfair vaudeville"), keeping up with the script's constant changes in pace and tone. There are even some nice, catchy songs thrown in for good measure (although it's not a musical), sung by the cast and accompanied by keyboardist Wes Matthews.

So, what are we left with at the end? What we're left with, I'm afraid, is a mess. A big, big, wonderful, wonderful mess that we have to mull over after the show is over. The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist deliberately bucks our expectations and leaves us with many more questions than answers.

If you go in trying to guess what the show is trying to tell you (i.e., is this making fun of faith or making fun of atheism), or if you think the show is going to flatter your particular religious or secular point of view, you're going to be one unhappy camper. Just like the con man roping you into a shell game, the folks who made this are too smart for that.

It's kind of brilliant.

The Honest-to-God True Story of the Atheist plays for three more nights (June 19, 20 & 21) at UNDER St. Marks (94 St. Marks Place between First Avenue and Avenue A). For tickets go here.

Getting down on his knees,

James "Con Man" Comtois

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