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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Mass Morality

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Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives: Americans may hold different positions, but they still seem to be playing for the same team. Unfortunately, an increasing number of indicators in the environment and the global economy would lead some to believe that they’re on the losing team. This thought can be difficult to accept—unless you happen to be looking at things from the outside.

Years ago, playwright Bill C. Davis, an outsider to the Catholic Church, peered into the nature of liberal progressivism versus conservative traditionalism with the feature-length stage comedy Mass Appeal. This week, In Tandem Theatre continues its season with a production of Davis’ play in their new space at the Tenth Street Theatre.

Michael Perez stars as an iconoclastic young seminarian who clashes with an old, established priest (Michael Duncan) as both struggle with the same problems presented by a changing society. The play has been criticized for employing stereotypes, but director and In Tandem co-founder Chris Flieller disagrees with that assessment.

“The core of the play is not concerned with dogma or stereotypes,” he says. “The play’s message is about human nature and the reminder that in any story involving the church, we are still working with inherent human strengths and weaknesses.” It is those basic strengths and weaknesses that fuel the production. In any established institution, there tends to be a clash between youth and experience, and this play touches on some of the issues that are currently controversial in Christianity.

One can imagine the struggle between old and new when walking into In Tandem’s new space at the Tenth Street Theatre. The new theater is located in the Calvary Presbyterian Church on West Wisconsin Avenue. Given that an established church might take issue with a production like this taking place within its walls, I asked Flieller if the situation posed any issues for the show.

“There was a discrepancy as to how to pronounce the word ‘ecumenism,’ so we asked the pastor one day while he was making his lunch, and he helped us out,” Flieller said, joking. “Other than that, they’re just coming to see it.”

All joking aside, Flieller says that In Tandem’s autonomy was written into the lease agreement with the church. “When…we met with the church board of directors…it was agreed that In Tandem Theatre would produce material in line with our mission and that Calvary Presbyterian Church would not attempt censure,” he says.

In Tandem had already decided to produce this play before knowing where it would occur. “We chose this play because of its strong writing and current relevance,” Flieller says, “raising issues of human needs and weaknesses and choices that test one’s moral fiber.”

In Tandem’s production of Mass Appeal runs March 27 through April 13.