Sermon in the MAC

The October of my sophomore year in high school, a small group of friends and I drove a short way outside Dallas to a haunted house called something like "Eternal Torture" or "Infinite Terror" or "The House of Endless Screams." We should have been clued in to the experience that awaited us by the inclusion of an adjective that meant "eternity" -- a.k.a. the afterlife or our final reward -- but we were too enchanted by the words "torture" and "terror" to think clearly. This was intentional. The organizers wanted to hook kids like us who were already on a seasonal high of haunted-house patronage.Indeed, some of the most heart-jolting theatrical effects I've since experienced came from these Texas institutions, where the fourth wall was not only invisible, but the performers didn't know it existed at all. That insanely giggling white-coated surgeon who removed a calf's liver with a buzz saw from the screaming, unanesthetized patient in front of us lacked the university training to understand that he wasn't supposed to advance on ticketbuyers. And so he did, and we went squealing through the dark hallway and on to the next set.

There was no such threat in the "Place of Perpetual Agony," or whatever, as the creators seemed smugly confident that the horrors they displayed would bring us to our Christian senses without audience disruption. We watched as a young, unwed teenager discovered she was pregnant, opted for an abortion, was strapped onto a filthy table by a villainous doctor, and had a bloody baby doll yanked and twisted slowly from underneath her skirt. Sometime afterward, we witnessed a fey young man (I'd love to know where that devout lad is today, because his smashing impersonation of a decadent homosexual had the authenticity that greater actors strive for but never reach) walk hand-in-hand with another guy through a door marked "Sodom" and reappear on a hospital bed, wheezing and moaning and covered with applique mascara lesions, a pre-Kramer-and-Kushner stage depiction of an AIDS victim early in the pandemic. He, along with the teenage mother and others, waited in a pit of shifting red lights, their arms poking through bars, grabbing at us as we left.

I wasn't politically aware enough at that age to be terribly offended, but I also wasn't raised as a churchgoer, so their proselytizing by damnation demonstration fell to the floor with the wet plop of a calf's brain doubling as a mad scientist's experiment. And I'd just recently seen a nighttime TV program that showed an AIDS patient with a throat swollen so badly by thrush, it had to be scraped out regularly so a straw for liquid nutrition could be inserted. The earnest young nitwit who flailed around on the fundamentalist haunted-house bed with his mother's makeup on his arms was a pretty lame imitation. So I learned a lesson early that has proven true ever since -- a person's eagerness to discuss the torments of hell stands in inverse proportion to his first-hand experience with genuine human suffering.

The current show at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, Blood Bondage, is nowhere near as crass or mean-spirited. Still, I couldn't help but think of those bait-and-switch fundamentalist haunted houses, because the press material sent out by ProgreXssive Arts for its debut production prophesies "erotic content" and "mature themes" and "violence." They reneged on all their sweet promises, and I was served instead a convoluted but not entirely uninvolving supernatural treatise on Christian immortality vs. the woes of the vampiric undead. Had playwright Jeffrey A. Seidman and director-star Vikas Adams intended an objective comparison-contrast of the pros and cons of both, the ways in which they are unwittingly similar, then they might truly have made us look at the sacred and the profane in a new way. (Anne Rice, for all that literary critics sniff at her bloody, heaving bosom, veers near this when writing at her best.) Unfortunately, the plot, while it perambulates around topics like Art and Love and Inspiration, leads us straight to an endorsement of Christian salvation. This is not a new goal for theater -- centuries ago, the Roman Catholics, once they understood that the public would not surrender their stage entertainment, relented and mixed productions with one part pagan celebration to three parts Christian ministry.

At least they offered full disclosure of their motives. ProgreXssive Arts mentions no theological concerns in their publicity info, and the erotic content seems limited to choreographer Shannon Leyrer Tate's shoulder and hip gyrations at a drunken party -- that, and one character's declaration, "I may be bisexual, but I'm not bi-desperate!" I was reminded of the Biblical flick The Ten Commandments, in which, because of the watchfulness of 1956 censors, God apparently smites the lascivious inhabitants of Sodom for giving one another piggyback rides.

The cynical interpretation is that ProgreXssive Arts is trying to lure shameless voyeurs like me into the McKinney Avenue Contemporary to cleanse us; a benevolent reading would suggest that the theater artists involved genuinely consider this stuff shocking. I'm not here to trample anyone's virtue, but I would submit that those with more hardened sensibilities who wander unsuspecting into the MAC will come away feeling not just cheated, but manipulated.

Blood Bondage begins with the disintegrating relationship of a painter (Vikas Adams) and his religious live-in girlfriend (Jennifer Pearcy). Their biggest source of frustration is his art manager (a convincingly malevolent R. Dean Schultz), a Mephistophelean figure who is also a vampire with visions of world domination. The artist is lured away from his lover and into a blood pact with the satanic vampire, whereupon he discovers great success but -- you guessed it -- spiritual emptiness. He visits his girlfriend decades later when she's an elderly woman, gets a contact high from her still-intact Christianity, and returns with intentions to convert Mr. Satan. I won't reveal the outcome, but let's just say things are settled with a climactic battle in which lasers -- or something like that -- shoot from the combatants' hands.

No malice bubbles underneath the chaotic surface of Blood Bondage, but the playwright and the director have interwoven too many half-formed ideas that, if developed, could each serve as plays by themselves. I was intrigued by the concept of a vampire who has found Jesus and is attempting to translate his own immortality into a parallel kind of salvation for the discontented. Unfortunately, we get plenty of information in this production on the pitfalls of an infinite blood lust -- a lifestyle I've always kind of taken for granted as a dead end -- but no similarly skeptical exploration into the limitations of the Christian worldview. Why not take some time to investigate the dangerous but restorative power of making art? Blood Bondage gives this short shrift and, by forceful implication, posits Jesus as the answer. I think the best theater should help us phrase more informed, incisive questions. Any show that claims to have put to rest a matter as personal and sloppy and elusive as the soul should be suspect, no matter where the alleged solution is coming from. Sermon in the MAC Blood Bondage promises fun. It delivers Sunday school.

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Jimmy Fowler