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Mark Jacobson in Captain of the Bible Quiz Team (photo by John Perrin Flynn)
Mark Jacobson in Captain of the Bible Quiz Team (photo by John Perrin Flynn)

Captain of the Bible Quiz Team

Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Rogue Theatre Company
Through October 3


Directed by Michael Michetti, playwright Tom Jacobson’s compelling drama is a powerful meditation on faith and prejudice. It’s staged with a deceptive simplicity that belies layers of thought-provoking philosophy and emotion.

In a site-specific production such as this one, the setting should become almost a character in the show, and so it is here.  On the day I reviewed, we arrived at the quaint, intimate Lutheran Church of the Master on the border of Westwood.  Amidst lovely ecclesiastical organ music (courtesy of organist Barbara Browning), we were welcomed as congregants and seated in the pews as if we were arriving for Sunday services. The show itself is more immersive than one might expect: The “program” consists of the Church Agenda for the tiny Kandota Lutheran Church in Little Sauk, Minnesota. The segments are separated by the performance of a hymn, in which we are expected to participate.  (And Lord help you if you don’t join in, or stand up when called upon to do so from the pulpit.

Performed in several churches around the Los Angeles area and featuring a rotating ensemble, the play consists of eight sermons delivered by newly minted minister Landry Sorenson, beginning on Christmas Eve 2010 and then running through Easter Sunday.

In his first sermon, Minister Sorenson (played here by Marc Jacobson, one of four rotating performers) gushes with delight over his new post, his first since graduating from seminary.

The young minister has been living in California, but he’s been sent home to Minnesota by his superiors to stand in for his father, a senior cleric, who is dying of cancer.  His feelings at being home are mixed; then, mid-sermon, he receives word that the majority of folks in the congregation, including his dad, have voted to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the church’s governing body), over its progressive attitudes towards gays and lesbians.

As the sermons progress over several months (separated by interludes during which the audience participates in singing hymns), we notice the stress and strain on Landry as his life steadily falls apart: The church turns out to be on the verge of bankruptcy due to his father’s poor management;  meanwhile, his dad’s health is getting worse, and the elder minister seems to despise his son. Seemingly unable to navigate the perilous political labyrinth that is his parish, Landry decides to come out as gay, a decision that brings all crises to a head.

Jacobson’s writing is subtle and moving; indeed, it is remarkable how, in a series of sermons, the playwright artfully manages to convey the delicate nuances of the central character, who at first emerges as gentle, albeit possessing the arrogance of youth, but then becomes angrier as he finds himself riven by the moral issues he’s forced to grapple with. The writing here is beautifully compact, with Landry’s attempts to teach love and compassion in direct conflict with his increasing frustration with his congregation’s small-mindedness and hypocrisy.

Part of the show’s power arises from it being performed in a church. This already sets the mood for introspection and analysis (unless you’re a vampire, in which case you’ll just vanish into a puff of smoke).  One expects a play on religious philosophy — or, more accurately, on themes of faith and theology — to be dispatched with a satiric eye, but this production has a nicely rendered respect for religion, (but not the hypocrisy of so-called religious people.)  The material’s lack of condescension — Jacobson has taken issues of faith as seriously as they truly deserve to be — makes for an incredibly moving experience.

Mark Jacobson delivers a winning performance as his character evolves from brash to injured, and then to wise. I would be intrigued to observe the dimensions the other performers bring to the role as the show is staged in other churches around town. 

Rogue Machine at St. Matthews Lutheran Church, 11031 Camarillo St, North Hollywood (September 10 through 19), then Hollywood Lutheran Church, 1733 N. Hampshire Ave, Los Angeles (September 23 through Oct 3); Sat, 5:00 p.m., Sun 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.;  Mon, 7:00 p.m.; through Oct. 3.  (855) 585-5185 or  Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission.