The stage is set under a canopy of stars and against the backdrop of Chautauqua Lake. James Dean Palmer, directing fellow at Chautaqua Theater Company, will present an outdoor version of Korean-American playwright Young Jean Lee’s Church at 9:30 p.m. tonight at the School of Art Quad.
The production is part of the company’s “After Dark” series.
As the name suggests, the play is a church service. The cast includes conservatory members John Bambery, Keren Lugo, Ricardo Davila and Myles Bullock.
Palmer, a fan of Lee’s work, directed this play in 2011 in Chicago.
“When [Lee] writes her plays, she sits down and asks herself, ‘What is the most difficult play I can write?’ ” Palmer said. “For Church, she wanted to write a Christian church service for 21st-century audiences. She wrote this passionate, compelling story of four Christians who show up on a stump to preach about faith, grandeur and God’s love.”
Church deals with religion, faith and what it means to put kindness into the world.
It’s Palmer’s first summer at the Institution, and after numerous interactions with Chautauquans, he was convinced that Lee’s work would be appreciated and understood by this community.
“Church mirrors back to Chautauqua what they are putting out with their idea of lifelong learning,” he said. “I think the idea of faith is intrinsic to [Chautauquans]. They may not immediately get the play, but the conversation at the breakfast table the next morning will be like no other.”
The play is experimental, especially when it comes to the locations. Set right by a raw tree stump with cut marks in the School of Art Quad, the performance will feel more like a real church service and less of a theatrical feat. The audience is encouraged to carry blankets and chairs and make a picnic of the night.
The simplicity of the characters also adds to the charm of the play.
“The characters are very normal people,” Palmer said. “Some have experienced tragedy and some are living regular happy lives but they look around the world and they see people struggling. These four Christians are trying to tell them that it’s not about the big revolutions or stopping a war, but about the single acts of kindness that will make things better.”
The weather at Chautauqua leading up to the performance has been temperamental at best, but it did not stop the cast and Palmer from rehearsing out in the open.
“The fight between good and evil is a spectator sport,” Palmer told the cast as they rehearsed outside Brawdy Theater Studios last week.
“This performance is a combination of some amazing writing and brilliant young actors,” Palmer said.
One element of the play Palmer particularly enjoys is a chorus singing at the play’s conclusion.
“For me, spirituality and music go together,” he said.