Have you ever wondered how someone could be both gay and a committed Christian? As detailed in Starlings, a play now in its “world premiere” production at Soulstice Theatre, the answer is: with difficulty. That’s no surprise; what’s surprising, and pleasantly so, is that playwright Ben Parman, starting from what could be a dreadfully predictable scenario—estranged high school friends having a reunion at a conference for gay Christians—confidently steers clear of the twin perils, cliché and bathos. Director Erin Eggers and a cast of fine, committed actors create a very particular group of characters and relationships to explore the fraught connections between sexuality and faith.
The first thing that hits you is the dazzling wordplay: the dialog is florid and flashy, like disco lights, or the elaborate filigrees of a baroque altarpiece. The characters—especially the logorrheic Ethan—reference-drop everything from Leviticus to random Hollywood movies “Have you ever read “Song of Bernadette” by Franz Werfel? Me neither, it’s 500 pages long. That’s not a book, that’s a booster seat.” Or: “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle of an Impressionist painting that sits on the table and everyone puts in a piece now and then and walks away.” It’s verse drama written as a series of twitter posts. Amazingly, this doesn’t come off as incredibly mannered; we can almost believe that we’re not listening to the mental efflorescence of one very rich and nimble mind, but overhearing conversations taking place in real time among very articulate people. The only problem is, they talk so fast and loose— as people do— you’re sometimes left going “what was that?” Still, you can’t fake intelligence, and the show is worth seeing for that alone.
There are many semi-theological discussions, drunken confessions, and painful revelations (though not of the biblical kind). Conspicuously absent is any frank or even risqué representation of sex, which lurks in the room unspoken, like the king-sized bed that dominates the stage—but nobody hops into. Nor are there any particular mentions of religious experience; it’s like a cage match of conflicting identities, with all the juicy parts left outside. But neither do the characters fit into any coloring-book stereotypes: Parman makes sure they are human beings first, and any political positions there might be evolve organically from their relationships. He uses literary pyrotechnics partly to keep us entertained while he sets up the action, and partly to show how the main characters try to shield themselves from their all-too-raw feelings behind a dazzling intellectual screen. Especially Neal—a fragile, hard-drinking man who has never come out to his family and defends his celibacy on religious grounds—and Matt, a former high school jock whose family sent him to a brutal “conversion camp,” where he taught sissies how to play sports—and where he met the man to whom he’s now engaged. Along for the ride is Deante, who, as a black bisexual Christian man, occupies cultural hot spots whichever way you slice it (he gets one of the show’s funniest lines: “I can’t talk to the police looking like this.”). The suspense builds when their friend Kelly reveals that her husband, the homophobic Ethan, is joining them for the conference. When he actually does arrive, it’s anticlimactic, but it sets up a major confrontation between Neal and Matt. Eggers has chosen to leave the ending completely ambiguous: no conclusions are reached, nothing is resolved—the puzzle remains unfinished.
In the roles of Neal and Matt, Ben Parman and Claudio Parrone each brings his own style of charisma: Parman is all sparkle and nervous energy; Parrone pulls you in with moody introspection. Playing Kelly, who shared many youthful exploits and emotional entanglements with the guys, Shannon Nettesheim is lively and funny, like the friend you always have a good time with (her mouth often purses into a charming little moue that gives her a striking resemblance to Betty Boop). Amante T. Gray and David Sapiro round out the cast, giving natural, credible performances: Gray is light and graceful, like the birds Deante adores, while Sapiro’s Ethan is earthy and solid, as befits the show’s manly man.
Starlings advertises itself as too Christian for gays and too gay for Christians. That’s pretty accurate. But as a series of compassionate, finely-drawn portraits of people in crux, it lives up to William Butler Yeats’ description of theater as “moments of intense life.”
Soulstice Theatre presents the world premiere of
by Ben Parman
playing through January 30
Thursdays -Saturdays 7:30pm
3770 S. Pennsylvania Avenue
“Discounted artist tickets are also available at the door”