It's easy to get wrapped up in the statistics around Richmond's midwinter theater event, the Acts of Faith festival: 13 theater companies, 13 faith communities, 14 productions and nearly 25 post-show discussions. This collaboration has proved a boon to the churches, synagogues and theater troupes that participate, creating a synergistic growth in attendance among organizations perpetually looking to increase their audiences.
But now that the festival is in its fifth year, it seems a good time to ask some critical questions: Has the tenuous connection to faith been stretched too far? Will the shows produced explore spirituality, values and morality, or something else entirely? What exactly is this festival about?
Here at the brink of the season we've taken a look at the shows to give you an idea of whether you should be bowing your head or cocking it to one side, rather like a confused dog.
Least Convincing Faith Connection: Henley Street's “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”
Runners-up: At least three others.
“Cuckoo's Nest” can be a gripping play chock full of ideas and metaphors involving conformity, individuality and mental health. But faith? I'll need to be convinced. The festival also includes a number of historical plays, such as Theatre IV's “Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” where spirituality seems at best to share the spotlight with bigger themes. Even Barksdale's “Children of a Lesser God” with its explicit deity reference has only a tangential thematic connection to faith.
Most Distinct Faith Connection: Tie: Seminary Shoestring Player's “Tickets to the Desert” and Richmond Triangle Player's “Altar Boyz”
These two shows take dramatically different approaches in their explicit explorations of faith. Set in fourth-century Egypt, “Desert” is a penetrating study of the classic big spiritual questions. “Boyz,” the story of a heartthrob Christian boy band, takes a more satirical look and includes a bevy of crowd-pleasing musical numbers as well.
Most Surprising Faith Connection: Richmond Shakespeare's “Amadeus”
You may remember this story of a libertine Mozart being undermined by the envious Salieri. You probably don't remember that the devout Salieri vows to destroy the famous composer after rejecting a God who would choose such a louse for genius.
Most Popular Quasi-Religious Figure: Maggie Walker
The Richmond entrepreneur will dominate two productions, “African American Trailblazers” from the African American Repertory Theater and Carpenter Science Theatre's “The Penny Executive,” overshadowing God, Jesus, Mohammed and others you might expect to be more prominent.
Most Popular Theme: Family Dynamics
Sure, it's supposed to be a festival about faith. But in at least five of the plays — from Chamberlayne Actors Theatre's “All My Sons” to Theatre VCU's “The Glass Menagerie” — complicated family dynamics are what take center stage. Consider this an informal gauge of where the culture's head is these days.
Most Surprising Omission: Stage 1's “Children's Letters to God”
Richmond's newest professional company has taken the town by storm and its artistic director, Chase Kniffen, chose to produce this musical adaptation of the popular book, planning to be a part of the festival. However, he ran headlong into a festival criterion that specifies that a professional company has to have produced a full season of shows. Festival coordinator Susan Davenport explains. “We received a lot of calls from theaters wanting to be part of [the festival]. We had to limit it or else there would just be too many plays.”
Best Bet: Firehouse Theatre's “Rabbit Hole”
Runner-up: Swift Creek Mill's “Of Mice and Men”
Regardless of any issues associated with the festival, it's consistently prompted the production of some exciting shows. This year should be no exception. Based on script alone, “Rabbit Hole” — an insightful and empathetic look at a family's grief (see above for familiar theme) — should be a winner. A 2006 Broadway production won near-universal acclaim. Steinbeck's “Of Mice and Men” is a classic for a reason; in that, you can certainly have faith. S
An Acts of Faith preview will be held Friday, Jan. 16, at 7:30 p.m., at Second Presbyterian Church. A full festival schedule is available at www.theactsoffaith.com.