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A CurtainUp Review
The God Botherers
The God Botherers In New York
by Elyse Sommer

(Photo: )
The new theatrical complex in Manhattan's Drydock neighborhood has become a place to catch plays from the British equivalent of Off and Off-Off Broadway just a subway, bus or taxi ride from home. The God Botherers is a case in point.

CurtainUp has previously reviewed the work of Synapse Productions, one of New York's most interesting young companies, as well as British playwright Richard Bean's plays. However, this is the first time Synapse has ventured into a high rent, uptown district and that American audiences have a chance to see why Bean, a former stand-up comic, has made a name for himself as a challenging playwright reminiscent of the late Joe Orton.

I'm appending Ben Clover's review of The God Botherers at the Bush Theater to these notes since this eliminates the need to repeat the play's major plot points and also because I generally agree with his appraisal of its strengths and weaknesses. As with the production Ben saw, the current director, David Travis, and his set designer Adrian W. Jones have transformed the handkerchief-sized stage of the second floor space into the realistically shabby headquarters of an NGO's (Non Government Organization) bungalow in the village of a fictional third world country. That set, with its corrugated tin roof that has only a few stones to protect it against destructive winds, an array of mismatched furniture and Berber fabric used as a doorway gives you an immediate sense of the contrast between this world, and the one these NGO workers have left.

The playwright does indeed raise serious questions without settling for a facile ending, But while at least the first act has its share of comic moments, I wouldn't call The God Botherers a comedy since the increasing darkness Ben mentioned really tips the scales towards tragedy -- probably because, at least in this production, things never really click in to give us the satisfying satire it was intended to be.

The Synapse cast is topnotch and Mr. Travis has elicited the best from the chief "God Botherers " -- Heidi Armbruste as the young American and her jaded Michael Warner as her jaded boss; also from Kola Ogundiran as Monday whose very clothes reflect his duality in terms of religion and Tinashe Kajese as burka-clad Ibrahima who loves her cellphone, sells her body and is terrified of the husband who threatens to kill her if the child she carries isn't a boy. Armbruster is terrific as Laura, the newly arrived, still idealistic Brown University graduate whose first of numerous epistolary monologues to a friend back home is a breathless "I'm here. . .everything is so. . .epic!" She's less compellinging in the more muted final scenes, but that goes for this production overall.

Dealing with a text that interjects frequent audience addressing monologues into the action is never an easy task for a director. It's even more difficult when those monologues take the form of letters. Unfortunately, Mr. Travis has not managed to make those epistolary monologues slip into place smoothly.

I saw The God Botherers at the end of ten days of seeing plays with strong and interesting issues. If I had more than a few quibbles with all except another British play, Pentecost, it is nevertheless bracing to see that the theater is alive and well as a forum for serious and provocative ideas.

Written by Richard Bean Directed by David Travis
Cast: Heidi Armbruster (Laura), Kola Ogundiran (Monday), Michael Warner (Keith), Tinashe Kajese (Ibrahima/Aisha)
Set Design: Adrian W. Jones
Costume Design: Jenny Mannis
Lighting Design: Marcus Doshi
Sound Design: Vincent Olivieri
Synapse productions at 59E59, 212/279-4200; www.synapseproductions. org
2/24/05 to 3/27/05; opening 2/27/05
Tues to Sat at 8:15pm; Sat and Sun at 3:15.
Tickets: $30 -- Students & Seniors $15 [in person at the box office only); also, special 2-for-1 Tuesdays.

--The London review by Ben Clover
I've just been dumped too-- do you remember Lookout Masulu? He's gone back to his wives. Three of them. That's the trouble with men these days, they want it all. . --- Laura
The Godbotherers
David Oyelowo as Monday
(Photo: Gordon Rainsford)
Playwrights relish challenging our certainties, especially moral ones, and Richard Bean's comedy does so very wittily. The Godbotherers will be controversial to some for its blunt depiction of a charity organisation's work in sub-Saharan Africa. After all most of us believe humanitarian and education projects in poor parts of the world are unequivocally "A Good Thing".

The God Botherers slyly examines why Westerners leave their comfortable homes to do this kind of work and his conclusions may ring uncomfortably true. The publicity material sells this as "Not for the politically correct" (whatever that means) and this does the piece a disservice. Bean's play is in no way a cheap shot at the humanitarian efforts of NGO's (Non Government Organisations, usually charities) but it doesn't let anyone's preconceptions off the hook either.

Although set in the present the play is mercifully free of the "contemporary resonance" with which the English stage currently obsesses. It's got so as even Panto this year will have to contain a hard hitting critique of British foreign policy. Indeed, part of the point of this play is how little changed and how under-examined has been the idea of aid work for the last twenty years.

Laura (Georgia Mackenzie), a young aid worker turns up in the Tambia and is instructed in the work of the agency by the older, jaded Keith (Roderick Smith). Keith's worked on projects all over the world and often starts sentences with, "When I was in Cambodia in '75" and the like. The NGO's HQ where the play is largely set is served by local factotum, Monday (David Oyelowo) and cleaner/prostitute Ibrahima (Sunetra Sarker).

The plot takes a while to get into gear and at the beginning the characterisation and scene setting are quite broad. Laura's naivety is shown by her sketchy local knowledge (she's read The Idiots Guide to Islam after struggling with the Koran) and linguistic tics like her repeated "likes". Keith is quickly painted as a seventies style social revolutionary gone sceptic, he bangs on about his previous assignments and The Clash until Laura rather cruelly points out "you're just like my dad".

Once the plot starts to move you realise how clever a play it is as the issues and tensions in the set up are deftly interwoven. The normal gender roles and rules are disrupted as each of the characters and cultures misunderstand one another. The play rather neatly shows that the balance of power between the sexes is the defining characteristic of a society. These ideas are mixed with a set up a little like The Tempest and the effect is acid, comic and as the play moves on, increasingly dark.

There are lots of great set pieces but perhaps the best illustration of themes is Ibrahima's visit to the Mountain. Pregnant and warned that her husband will kill her if she gives him another girl, she fasts and prays to the Earth Spirit. Even from behind a Burqa, Sarkers' is a very moving performance as she implores the god for deliverance. Then her mobile goes off and the moment is shattered. Moving and bathetic the scene got a laugh of recognition for the situation, but one attenuated by guilt because the character was clearly at the edge of despair.

Bean is good at memorable visual images (see Under The Whaleback for a striking use of a nailgun) and The God Botherers is no exception. Keith's climactic scene with local thugs "The Diesel Boys" is bizarre, destructive and somehow heroic, a good example of how this does "big" scenes without seeming silly.

The cast and Bob Bailey's set are uniformly excellent and it is the Bush's great triumph to get such superb production values into so small a space. All the main characters have monologues in which they excel; Keith's remembrance of becoming a God fearing man is very powerful indeed. Normally hard to fit into a piece without compromising pace or integrity, the performances and William Kerley's snappy direction make these scenes a treat. Special mention must go to Georgia Mackenzie for her wonderfully comic performance but the whole cast work very slickly together as an ensemble when required.

Bean's is a rich and thematically complex play and if the issues sometimes loom a little large behind the action its wit and style more than make up for it. The God Botherers may be too tart and cynical for some but I found it the perfect antidote to all the worthiness theatre so often falls into.

LINK to Curtain Up's reviews of other plays by Richard Bean
Under The Whaleback
The Mentalists

The God Botherers
Written by Richard Bean
Directed by William Kerley

Starring: David Oyelowo,
With: Georgia Mackenzie, Sunetra Sarker and Roderick Smith
Designer: Bob Bailey
Lighting Designer: Tanya Burns
Sound Designer: Mike Winship
Running time: Two hours ten minutes with one interval .
Box Office: 020 7610 4224
Booking to 20th December 2003
Reviewed by Ben Clover based on 21st November Performance at the Bush Theatre, Shepherd's Bush Green, London W12 (Tube: Shepherd's Bush)
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