In Martyr, there's not a likable character to be found. At least not in Second Thought Theatre's production of it. Marius von Mayenburg's moralistic tale of a teenager who seeks solace from adolescent confusions in the strictures of the Bible is treated without a hint of subtlety, rendering it a nightmarish narrative about the slippery nature of belief and the thin line between faith and fanaticism.
While his classmates keep their heads down in their smart phones, Benjamin Sudel (played turbulently by Garret Storms) can't stop reading the good book. He's also refusing to attend gym class, because of the exposed young bodies in the pool. The adults in his life offer excuses for his increasingly peculiar behavior, but in response he claims to have developed religious feelings, which are offended by his female classmates in bikinis. This rigid orthodoxy proves troubling as he begins to enforce his fundamentalism on everyone around him. He won't stand for his mother's divorcing his father; he won't stand for a science teacher's discussion of homosexuality; he won't stand for the clichéd, liberalistic religion of the school's religious studies teacher, Father Menrath. His singularity finds a disciple in a crippled classmate, Georg (made endearing by Ruben Carrazana) and attracts the attention of the school's vixen, Lydia Weber (Mikaela Krantz).
Benjamin's teenaged self-importance, bolstered by Christian dogma and a newfound goal of self-martyrdom, doesn't embrace Jesus' messages of generosity and love in the New Testament, preferring instead the totalitarian God of both the earlier and the apocalyptic texts. There, he finds a lack of ambiguity befitting his need for black and whites and offering a vindictive refuge as the adults surrounding him react with confusion, concern and blame-shifting for his behavior. But Benjamin's motivations are unreachable: Is he uncomfortable with being gay, as Lydia suggests when she unsuccessfully seduces him? Is it drugs, his mother asks? Is it trouble at home, his teachers wonder? One teacher, Erika Roth (Allison Pistorius) is deadset on dismantling his religion, becoming equally as obsessed with an alternative reading of the Bible — one where Jesus might be gay and God loves the Jews. But her fervor for reason becomes obsession after Benjamin confronts her with a Jew-blaming reading of Jesus' crucifixion (this point of conflict feels overblown when the play is performed in America and not its country of origin, Germany). Benjamin even coaxes Georg into devising acts of terrorism to adequately scare her into silence.
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In many ways, Martyr is a portrait of the unsettling relationships between adults and teenagers, but it seems more interested here in portraying the extremist state of American conversation. Under Blake Hackler's direction, this production offers at-times absurdist takes on each of its characters — very few times does anyone in the play actually seem to speak to one another. Paul Taylor's Father Menrath spouts meaningless drivel while slowly pacing the stage, a smile adhered to his face, creating a character with sinisterly saintly intentions. As the counterpoint to Benjamin's faith, he is a caricature of peace both in presence and in language. Similarly twisted are the other men in this play. The school's principal, Willy Batzler (Thomas Ward), adopts a policy toward Benjamin that can be summarized as, "Oh, shut up," a tactic similar to the one he employs with Erika Roth. When she vocalizes concern for the boy's well-being, he remarks casually about her attractiveness or sex appeal, which he finds to be much more powerful when she speaks less. She's unable to find an ally in her live-in boyfriend, Markus, another teacher at the school, who seems more worried with his own aging body than the students in his charge. Benjamin's mother gives little relief from Hackler's callous translation of the script; her parental concern seems shrouded in selfishness, amped up by Lulu Ward's shrill frustration, present from the first minute of the play when she enters the stage scowling at her son.
The production is rife with cynicism. Even Darren Diggle's set implies the cold, unforgiving halls of a church, his minimalist set prominently featuring a large black canvas — a dark cousin to a meditative Rothko. The play isn't particularly fraught with conflict between faith and science; faith is caricature in its lukewarmness (Father Menrath) and devastating in its extreme (Benjamin). Only when science stoops to conversation with faith do its arbiters become suspect both to the rational audience and to the irrational characters onstage. In the final scene when Benjamin devolves into violence and presses accusations against Erika, who then dramatically refuses to leave upon being fired, the idea of martyrdom itself is turned on its head, not just in the question of who the play's title is referencing, but in the desirability of the designation.
Redemption is nowhere to be found for these characters, or for religion itself, in this unflinching interpretation of the play. Its unnerving portrayal of a teenager lost in the tempest of adolescence, who clings to doctrine for dear life, left a small hole in the pit of my stomach, even if the production seemed at times shrouded in the conflict of its own intentions.
Martyr continues at Second Thought Theatre through February 6.