“Agony in the garden, everybody!”
The stage manager has just called the next scene and the company scrambles to set up for it. With about two weeks to go before opening night, they’re still working with a combination of real, substitute, and “work-in-progress” set pieces, including three large, unpainted wooden boxes and two huge ladders.
Cast member Jack Wetherall pushes one of the boxes a few feet toward stage right and then looks at it thoughtfully. “I sort of remember it hugging the ladder last time,” he says.
“Last time was Tuesday,” comments fellow cast member Tina Shepherd.
Jack laughs. “No,” he says. “Twenty-eight years ago!”
The company is the Talking Band, and the show is Hot Lunch Apostles. When the play was first produced at La MaMa in 1983 and again in 1984, its apocalyptic vision of 50 million unemployed and a society dominated by religious fundamentalists was set several decades in the future. In this remount—set to open on March 1, 2012—the production is set in the present. “So I guess I was right!” says playwright Sidney Goldfarb with a laugh, adding, “That was not by chance. I definitely saw the country going in that direction…It just wasn’t quite as extreme as it is now.”
In a way, Hot Lunch Apostles was a natural choice for the Talking Band, which for the past 37 years has been presenting work that “illuminates the extraordinary dimensions of ordinary life,” to quote from the company’s website. Founded in 1975 by veterans of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theatre, the company went on to win 15 OBIEs and to be hailed in 2008 by American Theatre Magazine as “one of the most exceptional experimental theater companies in the country.”
The 1984 production of Hot Lunch Apostles garnered similar praise. “I suppose it’s inevitable that the Talking Band will now be considered one of the main forces of the Avante Garde in American theatre today,” said a review in the Villager.
Maybe Hot Lunch Apostles appeared “avante-garde” in the 1980s, but it seems disturbingly up-to-the-minute today. The play is the raunchy, raucous, and grotesquely funny story of a bedraggled carny troupe that decides to supplement its failing strip show business with scenes from the New Testament. As the company continues to present geek shows, burlesque numbers, and sex acts, they are also rehearsing what they call “that gospel shit.” Sometimes, as in an erotic strip tease by St. Theresa (“St. Theresa here’s gonna show you how a young girl comes when she’s wounded by God himself,” says Barney the barker), sex and religion combine in a provocative mix that Goldfarb says, “aims to be satire and transcendent at the same time.”
At the heart of Hot Lunch Apostles is a debate over what Christianity might mean in the midst of economic desperation and right-wing repression. “Worst day of my life is the day my father made me read the Bible,” says Phoebe, one of the carnies, near the beginning of the play. “According to the Bible, everything I love is evil.” Phoebe would rather “serve hot lunch”—offer herself up to the audience for oral sex—than help to glorify a religion that she sees as simply pacifying the masses. “People so starved for hope, they drool at the smell,” she says after the gospel scenes start to catch on. “Do they make you squat on their faces for a piece of bread? Don’t worry! After you’re dead, you get another shot.”
Yet, Phoebe is in the minority as the rest of the troupe begins to respond to the power, comfort, and beauty of the gospel scenes. This is in no small part due to Rod, the actor who plays Christ, and to Jack Wetherall, the actor who created the role in 1983 and who reprises it today. A longtime associate of the Talking Band, Wetherall’s other credits range from playing Shakespeare opposite Maggie Smith to portraying “Uncle Vic” on the Showtime TV series Queer as Folk. He shows us Rod’s anger—as a gay man, Rod associates Christianity with gay-bashings and murders—but he also shows us how Rod gradually creates a charismatic Jesus: sorrowful, powerful, loving, betrayed. When he says at the da Vinci-inspired Last Supper, “The priests and rulers of this land must kill me or lose their power,” you hear both a religious icon and a revolutionary hero.
Yet you also wonder, as the production means you to, why religion is the only form of community and resistance available to the desperate carnies whose “geek acts” include a man eating garbage and a female drug addict vomiting and covered with sores. When newcomer Slide joins the group, she is first grateful for the haven, then devastated by her experience of serving hot lunch. Naturally, she prefers performing gospel to doing sex shows—but, the play nudges you to wonder, why are those her only choices?
Apocalypse Then and Now
When the Talking Band created Hot Lunch Apostles in 1983, right-wing Republican Ronald Reagan’s presidency was in full swing. The rich were getting tax cuts, the social safety net was being slashed, and the poor were supposed to make do with whatever extra wealth “trickled down” from above. Critics called it “voodoo economics,” but to Reagan’s many supporters, it was “morning in America.” Throw in the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and the rise of right-wing Christian fundamentalism, and, as Wetherall says, “The world seemed to be falling apart.”
At the same time, activists were highly aware of another version of Christianity. “During the civil rights movement, I was in jail with a lot of Christians,” says Goldfarb.
Paul Zimet, the play’s director and the company’s artistic director, is also aware of that other Christianity. He points out that one of the 1983 cast members, Bimbo Rivas, was both a prominent community organizer and a devout Christian who subscribed to the revolutionary “liberation theology” then sweeping through Latin America. A challenge to the dominant version of Catholicism, liberation theology focused on Jesus as an advocate for the poor, with Christianity seen as a force for economic equality, social justice, and human rights for all.
Struck by these contradictions, Zimet and Goldfarb decided to create a work that would take seriously the promise of the gospels while also acknowledging their repressive potential in the hands of the right. As a result, Hot Lunch Apostles is virtually guaranteed to offend believers and nonbelievers alike.
In 1983, Goldfarb was drawing on a popular liberal/progressive version of Christianity by having Rivas’s former garbage eater say things like, “If Christ came back right now, do you know who he’d hang out with?… He’d hang out with us!” He was also responding to the growth of the anti-abortion movement and a more right-wing version of Christianity by having Barney the barker comment that he wouldn’t present the St. Theresa strip act in one of the towns along his route, because “I don’t wanna push my luck with those fetus freaks.”
Back then, Christianity seemed like contested turf, at least to some extent, with liberals and liberation theologists portraying Jesus as the poor people’s friend in explicit opposition to the Christian right. Now, though, the religious right plays a much larger role in both religion and politics than anyone in the 1980s ever thought they would.
“Hot Lunch Apostles is pretty mild compared to what’s going on,” Goldfarb insists. Then he adds, “This is a Christian culture.” Because Goldfarb sees Christianity as so dominant in U.S. culture, he wanted to take it on in all its contradictions, hoping—in both eras—that his play would “shake loose the way people ordinarily think of things.”
Speaking Across Generations
When the first production of Hot Lunch Apostles was mounted, cast member nicHi Douglas wasn’t even born yet. Yet the 24-year-old actress, who plays Slide, believes that the play will speak to at least some people in her generation.
“I think this play has a lot to do with what people are willing to do to get by,” she says. “Working as many jobs—whatever sort of job you need to make rent, to get by in the city—is a real and alive thing for most of my friends, regardless of their occupation or wherever they fit into the world. I think this play will speak to that group of my-age people who are dealing with that.”
Fellow cast member and musician, 32-year-old Edward RosenBerg agrees. The desperate straits of the company, he believes, “really is something that could be just around the corner or is already here for a lot of people.”
Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Loudon Wainwright, who plays Barney the barker, sees that desperation, too.
“This morning I got up early and walked to this swimming pool that I go swim in…and sure enough, there were people in February… in cardboard boxes for covers, sleeping in doorways and churches—and that’s always been going on,” he says. “There’s the whole pitch in this play about the garbage eater. And there are garbage eaters out there. So there’s nothing fantastical. It’s a reality. And hopefully we’ll be able to punch that home.”
Talking Band member Will Badgett saw the original Hot Lunch Apostles in the early 1980s, just as he was joining the company. Now he plays Edge, the garbage-eater, and he, too, believes that the play has lost none of its power. “That’s a wonderful thing for me as an artist,” he says. “To hope that in some way an audience member will walk away and find some way to connect their life to what they saw on stage. This play does that for me—and did that for me then.”
Wetherall’s hopes for the play are similar. “There are no solutions right now,” he says. “There are only questions—but we need to voice them … I do want people to think about their own lives … I think theater can change the world. I do! I don’t think that’s a naïve thing. I think that’s what I aspire to!”
The Talking Band’s Hot Lunch Apostles, written by Sidney Goldfarb, directed by Paul Zimet, runs March 1 – 18 at La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart Theater, 66 E. Fourth Street, Manhattan. Tickets: $25 ($20 student/senior) at 212-475-7710 or talkingband.org, or by visiting the La MaMa box office at 74A E. Fourth Street.