cult (kəlt) noun:
A. a system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object
B. a relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister
The “Cult” in Topher Cusumano’s absorbing drama The Cult Play fits definition “B” much more than definition “A”… but interestingly, the “C word” is never even used in Cusumano’s piece, presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble and now enjoying its World Premiere in New York City. It almost seems that we anticipate, starting from the play’s title right on through, a disturbing tale to unfold. That anticipation is strongly present to the audience… but clearly not to the eight characters themselves, who are lost in their own world.
For The Cult Play, directed by Irene Lazaridis, the square-shaped performance space of Paradise Factory Theater is transformed into the fictional Northeastern Spiritual Center, complete with ethereal meditation music, miniature pillows for kneeling, hanging gardens, and… well, everything you’d expect in a place called “The Northeastern Spiritual Center”. Close your eyes, and you can almost smell the soothing scent of lavender. This peaceful setting, however, can’t hide the darker goings-on taking place once we pass the table of welcome pamphlets. In the very first scene, we meet Mama Pearl (Lori Elizabeth Parquet) and Papa Jaye (John Lenartz). They are the leaders of the Center, and spiritual parents to their faithful flock of Goddess-worshiping youngsters. The audience gets to eavesdrop on a heated conversation between the two, which lets us know immediately that there are some secrets a-brewing in a well-hidden cauldron offstage. For the audience, it’s not a question of IF something wicked this way is coming. It’s a question of WHEN…
If there are bad spirits hovering behind these gauzy curtains, however, then Mama and Papa’s dedicated devotees don’t seem to be aware– at first, anyway. When we first see the larger-than-life Mama Pearl in action, we know that she’s gonna be a force to reckon with. Parquet, in this central role, plays the part with gusto. Alternating between pure white flowing gowns and ritual robes, Mama is a little bit teacher, a little bit friend, a little bit life coach, and… a whole lot of mother. This mother, however, can be just as much Margaret White in Carrie as Claire Huxtable. In one early scene, we see a darker side to her maternal love that breaks all the boundaries of her aforementioned roles. But again, her quartet of “Soul Scouts”– Clover (Layan Elwazani), Nora (Elise Stone), Diego (Josh F.S. Moser), and Garrett (Oscar Klausner) — are either to busy or too blindsided (or too hungry…) to notice. Life at the Center all seems very innocent and healthy at first. During the day, this chosen family does yoga, practices exercises in clairvoyance, and performs lively songs of praise to the Goddess. Their worship starts out as chanting and builds up to a frenzied, high energy pace with dancing, spiritual ecstasy, and transcendental abandonment. They do this, in part, to protect themselves from the “demons”– or, in less scary terms, “dormants” who lurk in the outside world. But as the story progresses, Mama Pearl and Papa Jaye’s well-insulated temple starts to fall apart. Remember the “dormants” that I mentioned? One of them is Charlie Bear (Ariel Estrada), a Center defector who also happens to be Mama Pearl’s estranged brother. His presence becomes a thorn in the side of Mama’s well-crafted rose garden. Life at the Center is also thrown into a slow and subtle shakeup when, during the daily routine of proselytizing, Clover meets a charismatic drifter named Mae (played perfectly by Stacey Raymond). Mae turns out to be a street-smart free spirit who also happens to be a tech-savvy master of social media. When she becomes the newest Soul Scout, her relationship with Clover gradually becomes… well, more than sisterly. Mae also seduces Mama Pearl in a different way, encouraging Mama to send the Goddess’ message into cyberspace. Seemingly overnight, Mae’s videos go viral, throwing the Center into a social media spotlight and making a star out of Mama Pearl. Our Mommie Dearest starts seeing acres and acres of green, and we’re not taking about a grassy meadow. Meanwhile, Papa Jaye engages Garrett and Diego in some weirdly disquieting “warrior exercises”, in anticipation of what has become his obsession: kidnapping Charlie Bear, their most famous defector. Mortal consequences ensue. On top of this, another new arrival is set to join the family, which is interpreted as a sign. Could this mean the long-anticipated return of the Goddess?
Like the sessions of worship that the characters engage in, The Cult Play increases in intensity until it explodes. Personality clashes, repressed desires, drug addiction, hidden rage, blind allegiance, greed, and opportunism eventually build up like a pressure cooker, with the result being mental breakdown, insanity, physical altercations, and even more mortal consequences. Without giving too much away, the body count rises to five– and this is a cast of eight!
Underneath the drama and smart humor, Cusumano’s script features some deceptively complex character development, particularly with the four “Soul Scouts”. All of them have varying levels of devotion to their spiritual quest. Layan Elwazani’s fresh-faced Clover channels all of her youthful energy into her faith. Even when that faith occasionally challenges reality, it’s impossible not to find her endearing. In one scene, she sheds some welcome enlightenment on the legitimate religious antecedents of the Center’s mission: Indeed, many pre-Abrahamic religions were matriarchal and Goddess-centered, and women were often held in high positions of power– before those positions of authority became monopolized by males. While Clover radiates young zeal, Elisa Stone’s Nora represents the character that Clover could easily become in 10 years. Stone does a great deal of acting with her huge eyes. Those eyes reveal a woman who has experienced a great deal of hurt and disillusionment, yet who is still holding onto her chosen family and pathway– even if it’s with a sense of painful desperation. As Garrett, Oscar Klausner expertly plays a spiritually wounded boy trapped in a grown man’s lanky body. Josh F.S. Moser’s Diego, in contrast, may be the only grounded character in the cast. Diego, in fact, may also be the best example of true, healthy religious devotion: he’s dedicated to his beliefs, but he stops short of fanaticism. The character’s grounded nature is likely why he clashes so strongly with the “what you see is what you get” style of Stacey Raymond’s spunky Mae. Speaking of dedication, all of the actors are superb. All eight players keep up their energy level throughout the shows’s intense two-hour-plus running time, which requires a lot of physical moxie as well as dramatic skill. The design team’s lighting, projections, and set pieces really deliver.
Presented by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, Topher Cusumano’s The Cult Play, directed by Irene Lazaridis continues at The Paradise Factory Theater at 64 East 4th Street, (between Bowery and Second Avenue), New York City, through Saturday, February 17. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit www.PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org.
(Photos by Gerry Goodstein.)