America's Next Top Savior: Holier Than Thou brings religion into reality TV,hints at greater things yet to come
Many Austin artists don't own televisions; and if they do, they are definitely NOT watching shows like Survivor or The Bachelor. (Maaaaaybe Top Chef, but only this season because our boy, Paul, is clearly going to win.) But if you're a pop culture ethnographer like this reviewer, you know the tropes and the outlandish behaviors of the common Reality TV Contestant.
Holier Than Thou, Poison Apple Initiative's contribution to this year's FronteraFest Long Fringe, juxtaposes this rich genre with organized religion to offer a dose of hyperbolic social commentary. The brainchild of tenacious playwright Bastion Carboni and director Bethany Perkins, Holier Than Thou is a thoughtful production that benefits from its restraint and subtlety.
Upon entering the Salvage Vanguard mainstage space, projections of reality TV audition tapes flicker over a simple black stage. These broad character sketches quickly establish a context for the show: the sea of vapid and damaged Americans that sincerely regard reality television as a means of attaining fame and financial independence.
As the chosen cast of seven show contestants take their seats on stage in their implied "confessional booths," we begin slowly piecing together the grand prize of this amazing race: the omnipotent power that comes with becoming God. Guided by a Tim Gunn-esque Jesus figure, the contestants must prove they have the cunning and perseverance to deserve the title of The Almighty.
We begin slowly piecing together the grand prize of this amazing race: the omnipotent power that comes with becoming God.
In a straight-forward, audience-centric single act, the contestants detail the events of the episodes of the reality show, complete with Biblically-inspired challenges, expected personality disputes and subsequent votes "off the island." Carboni's script does a fine job interweaving the seven perspectives, and the actors handle the volley seamlessly. In fact, the show glides along so effortlessly, it arrives at a climax even before you may realize all of the contestants have been eliminated.
Personalities and motives are revealed in the actors' reflections of their past actions, with only a few intermittent flashes of in-the-moment interaction. The actors have only Carboni's language to describe the episodes with enough color to paint these fantastic and gruesome images in our heads. Thankfully, the talented ensemble cast is up for the playwright's challenge.
The climax of the play does not come as an utter surprise considering the subject matter; but, like most reality shows, the journey is often more important than the results. The spiritual aspects of the material are used mostly for humorous effect, never quite clarifying the logistics of who is granting the prize to the winner or exactly why. The mysteries remain mysterious, and the all-too-human players and their flaws draw our focus.
With the confessional approach of the seated actors as a solid base, I felt the play could benefit from more direct interactions between the characters. I was also curious to see the elimination challenges from the "episodes" presented on the video screen above the actors. Since the medium has such a rich vocabulary of universal tropes, it seems fitting to actively involve the all-intrusive camera from the beginning of the show to the end.
In its current incarnation, Holier Than Thou is an enjoyable production with a promising trajectory and plenty of room to grow. Poison Apple does prompt some interesting commentary about modern day religion, and its comparisons to religious practice warrant more depth. With further development, this smart, sharp one-act could easily become a divine spectacle.
Holier Than Thou plays at Salvage Vanguard Theater on Feb. 4 at 8:15 p.m. Tickets are available here.