Religious righteousness stifles Dallas theater company's intense play
One or two hot-button issues can give a play intensity; four or five just feels overstuffed.
The main controversy in Martyr is ostensibly religion versus tolerance, but that often gets pushed aside for sexual harassment, homophobia, bullying, toxic parenting, and condemnation of our education system. It's a lot to take in during 90 minutes, and Second Thought Theatre's production relies more on style than substance.
The style is a complement, though, as Blake Hackler tightly directs his cast to balance passionate outbursts with presentational delivery. Roboticized moments highlight the utter ridiculousness of some of the show's statements, an effect that lands more than the screeching arguments that crop up every other scene.
German playwright Marius von Mayenburg does have flashes of levity buried in his script, but so much of the story is past the point of absurd that it actually works against itself (Maja Zade's translation removes all hint of Germanic influence).
Loner teenager Benjamin is suddenly obsessed with the Bible, preaching fire and brimstone to his divorced mother (adultery), biology teacher (won't accept creationism and teaches sex ed), and swim coach (allows female students to swim in bikinis). He takes each verse — nay, every word — literally, and refuses to adapt for modern society.
But he's also a hormonal teenager, bursting with the sure shortsightedness that most his age rely on. Garret Storms fascinates as Benjamin, using his tall, gangly frame to impose when others are bent double with rage.
Ruben Carranzana, as Benjamin's sidekick and fellow outcast, provides much-needed comic relief, but always with a hint of sadness. Thomas Ward takes what could be a throwaway role as the buffoonish school principal and makes each line cutting with its arrogance and stupidity. Lulu Ward relies too much on volume as Benjamin's mother, but she sure makes it easy to see why the boy might withdraw.
Mikaela Krantz, as the schoolgirl who taunts Benjamin with her budding sexuality, and Andrews Cope, the gym teacher, are two actors who valiantly try to bring more to their roles than exists. Paul Taylor, as well, is wasted as the calm-voiced vicar whose religious studies curriculum falls short of the judgmental teachings Benjamin craves.
Allison Pistorius is all of us as the biology teacher who is horrified at every turn. "You are all wrong!" she wails over and over, firmly trying to put in his place her casually sexist boss, patronizing boyfriend, and wild students. She can only say it so many times, though, before it's all just noise to us.
Second Thought Theatre's Martyr runs through February 6.