As the Inhumana Festival continues to ask the question “Just how many variations on undead stories are there to discover?”, Church of the Saint Bearer posits one of the more obvious but relatively unexplored questions about zombies. Is the dead walking the earth a complete refutation of Christian beliefs? Now I’m not a scholar of undead storytelling, and religion has certainly played a role in many famous zombie tales. But it seems a key and largely overlooked question to ask whether zombies are meant to represent such a solid statement against the idea of everlasting life after death as many religions envision it.
We might suppose a believer’s response to be that the zombie is only the vessel and that this would have little to do with a soul ascending to heaven or otherwise. But this script intriguingly dips its toe into such theological waters and whets your appetite for Big Questions. It is set entirely inside a church, where the priest attempts to hold his dwindling flock together against a vaguely described plague that eventually brings the suffering (the word “zombie” is never spoken) to the very doors of the sanctuary. The priest relies on the strength of prayer, but his parishioners fall prey to the usual catalog of paranoid self-defense and, eventually, violence.
I have no idea of playwright Irene L. Pynn’s own spiritual beliefs, but agnosticism seems a comfortable fit for the tale she is telling. The script is never preachy except where action demands, and the ideas are allowed to surface rather than be dredged up to obvious effect. Cliches are inherent to zombie stories, but my only real complaint is that the brief narrative (less than a full hour) seems to promise so much more. I would love to see the author delve deeper and expand this play somewhat. The themes are certainly heady enough to warrant a full-length treatment.
Frank Whitaker delivers an authoritative performance as the priest, unshorn locks and scruffy beard suggesting a liberal but unwavering devotion to God. His calm level voice in the early scenes begins to crack as his divine protection comes under direct challenge. Jamie Shannon makes an impression as an expectant mother who introduces the most strident paranoia in defense of her unborn child, while John Aurelius is solid support as her husband. Alex Minton, a new face to me, does good work as a young survivor; and Denny Grinar is a welcome phlegmatic presence. Director Michael Ray Harris stages the action in simple, direct terms that never overwhelm the tiny space, even when he is reaching for horrific impact. Things get tense and scary, and there are some reasonably gruesome make-up effects when the plague enters the church. I apologize if that seems like a spoiler, but, come on – it IS a zombie play!
Church of Saint Bearer
Part of Inhumana: A Festival of New American Undead Theatre
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Angie Reed Garner