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Theatre Mon Sep 22 2008

People's Temple at American Theatre Company

People's Temple, currently running at American Theatre Company and written and directed by Leigh Fondakowski, provides a more detailed look at an American tragedy which has oft been condensed to a mere soundbite. The deaths of hundreds of People's Temple members in Jonestown, Guyana has been reduced to a catchphrase in our culture: "drinking the kool aid". Fondakowski's docudrama, cleanly and minimally staged at ATC, explores the heartwrenching details of this event which have been sadly overlooked.

An ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word, each actor shifts skillfully from character to character, without reducing any of their portrayals to caricature or cartoonishness. Every line in this play has been taken from interviews Fondakowski conducted over a period of four years with former People's Temple members who survived the Jonestown massacre, as well as family members of those who did not. The actors give these words the appropriate reverence and weight without being overindulgent or overly precious with them. The dialogue is underscored by a number of a capella renditions of the gospel hymns that served as a strong portion of the People's Temple's worship services, and add a joyous element to a piece that could be overly somber, given the topic.

The first act has the breathless passion of someone who has just fallen in love, with each person telling their own story of how they came to know Jim Jones and attend his integrated church -- a bold social move in the late '60s and early '70s. Each person's story is unique, with an undercurrent of a feeling of restlessness, and of feeling displaced in American society. Indeed, Jones' People's Temple was as much a social protest movement as it was a church.

By the end of the first act, however, the extent of Jones' mania is apparent, and one gets that same feeling of dread you get in a nightmare where you are falling: you can see the ground approaching beneath you, and you know there will be a brutal impact -- but when? The beginning of the second act does suffer from some pacing problems and seems to not advance the action along as quickly as it should. The night I attended there seemed to have been some missed or delayed entrances which may have thrown the cast off of their rhythm.

Those problems aside, there were a number of remarkable performances turned in by the cast, many of whom are members of ATC's ensemble. Darrell W. Cox is stunning as both Jim Jones and Jones' eldest son, with his portrayal of the People's Temple leader skillfully blending Jones' charisma with his megalomaniacal delusions. Patrick Andrews, who was grossly overlooked by the Jeff Committee for his role in last year's Speech and Debate, also at ATC, possesses boundless energy, a remarkably beautiful singing voice, and a tremendous emotional vulnerability that makes him a supremely watchable performer.

Much like Fondakowski's other notable docudrama, The Laramie Project, this is not a light evening of theatre, but still manages to imbue a tragic event with occasional humor, joy, and hope for those who survived. People's Temple runs through September 28th. Tickets and more information can be found on American Theatre Company's website.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

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Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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