Hot Lunch Apostles is not for the faint of heart. Brave, shameless, and immensely inventive it lurches back and forth between gross-out burlesque and fervent Passion Play revealing disturbingly similar emotional truths. Unflinching, middle-aged nudity is off the graph. Blunt, carny language causes whiplash.
A dodgy company of down and out smut peddlers in a post apocalyptic world, faced with the economic reality of extinction is trying to reinvent itself as religious mummers. Transition is predictably far from smooth. During an early rehearsal of Christ’s birth involving incantation, costuming out of Good Will bins, and a plastic baby bottle, Phoebe (Tina Shepard), can’t keep from cracking up between lamb-like baahs from her position on all-fours. Rod (Jack Wetherall), a Barry Manilow look alike with the muscular body of an older Jack LaLane, refuses to play Jesus, sure he’ll “get the shit kicked out of” him. Having crawled back to the troop from LA, he prefers the honesty of stripping (the man could teach Chippendales) and service “the dick of your dreams.” Everyone has his line in the sand.
Brutish director Barney (Loudon Wainwright) and his ersatz assistant, the manic (verbal fusillades ensue), bipolar Loop (Ellen Maddow), act as outside “talkers” (barkers) roping in the rubes. Planning a route from Henrietta to Liplock (these are towns) and their gospel debut is so idiomatic it sounds like fast food ordering. Between portions of their show on the road (geek acts, raunchy skits, and strips) we watch the upcoming pageant evolve. Overlap is exemplified by “St. Teresa: how a young girl comes when she’s wounded by God himself!”
Woman and man alike audition (on a makeshift cross) to play Jesus. Barney ‘s interpretation includes ranting “motherfucking Jews!” at his persecutors. “He wasn’t a panty-waist, he was a man!” Edge (Will Badgett), a professional garbage-eater and the only one who can actually quote scripture, declares the boss “no good.” Rod is tricked into the part.
The company is rounded out by Slide (nicHe douglas), a fugitive from the streets who plays “this really gash* gobble girl washing Christ’s feet” when she’s not parroting Phoebe’s striptease or submitting to the raw act signified by the title of the play and Cyclone (Edward Rosenberg III), a long-haired musician with no discernible function other than to wield various reed instruments.
When Hot Lunch Apostles was first performed 28 years ago under Ronald Reagan’s second term, the country was at 7.5% unemployment. (It’s currently at 8.3%.) Trickle-down economics proved to be only a slogan. Threats of right-wing oppression were rampant. (See Tea Party propaganda and the current Republican roster.)
The persuasive power of the gospels in visual iconography (wait until you see the tableau vivants!) and comforting content prove seductive to the wounded souls on the stage. “A taste of Jesus Christ is like a taste of pussy,” Phoebe warns Rod. So, under the circumstances, is paying one’s bills. Sin is revealed as a personal point of view; integrity, a moving target. With Christianity working its way into every facet of society, playwright Sidney Goldfarb seems prescient. Though the look and feel of the piece is decidedly hippie, revival feels timely. Characters are as much cinema verite as they are offbeat. Juxtaposition of Rod’s bump and grind with Slide’s unself-aware backstage singing of a spiritual is one among many arresting, discomfiting moments. Offending in an effort to goose awareness is effective. The audacious, flamboyant enactment of Talking Band will resonate.
Paul Zimet’s authoritative direction pulls no punches. Orchestrating point and counterpoint, he manages, as much visually as verbally, to provocatively dismantle assumptions without providing sure alternatives. Music weaves throughout like a participating character rather than scoring. Performance is hard hitting, brisk, and unapologetic. A new criteria for sleaze in legitimate theater may have been achieved. The play’s loosey goosey, warts-and-all format is very carny.
The ensemble is convincing and uninhibited. Everyone holds his or her own.
Jack Wetherall, who reprieves the role of Rod he originated in 1982, is unconditional in his commitment. There’s nothing this multi-faceted thespian can’t or won’t do. With the help of expert strip choreographer James Tigger! Ferguson, the actor could turn pro tomorrow. He’s as credible as an undisguised degenerate as he is as a man profoundly affected by newfound principles. A wildly idiosyncratic but ultimately grounded performance.
Minimal Set Design by Nic Ularu is appropriately tacky and practical with a dash of glitz.
Costumes by Kiki Smith are gloriously patched together, worn out, and defining.
The pre-show arcade set up in an outer lobby offers ball toss, a test-your-strength striker, an alien poetess (the last of her kind), the angry bear woman, and opportunity to be photographed sticking one’s head into cut-out faces of billboard acrobats. Wine, beer and hot pretzels are sold. Though the 15’ banners are great, time is spent awkwardly milling around in silence until poetess and bear outshout one another and the dead cowboy with his trail partner play and sing. None of the sideshow people seem into it. No real ambience is created for lack of overall music and an effective, charismatic talker to make us feel like a community.
La Mama presents
Hot Lunch Apostles by Sidney Goldfarb
Directed by Paul Zimet
Ellen Stewart Theater at La Mama
66 East 4th Street
Through March 18
Photo credit: Darien Bates