To some people, hell is rush hour on I-526 with the radio stuck on WEZL. To others, it's a fiery pit populated by big sinners and little horned demons. But where does this latter notion come from? The modern Christian perception of hell is the equivalent to Islam's Jahannam or the Jewish Gehenna. In Greek mythology, Tartarus was a fetid pit of torment. By Roman times, it was surrounded by a ring of fire. For the ancient Egyptians, that ring was a lake for sinners to skinny dip in.
Hell's not the only example of a religious trope that has been passed down from one civilization to another. From the tree of life to the Great Flood to the idea of a singular, Zoroastrian supreme being, there are plenty of elements that the world's fatally bickering faiths can actually agree on.
Andrea Studley and Michael Catangay, co-founders and artistic directors of Deuce Theatre, like to raise hell themselves. When they arrived here from New Jersey, they brought The Emperor is Naked? It was a rabble-rousing political allegory with Ancient Greek trappings about a docile populace led by a warmongering ruler.
The show ran several times in different locations, most recently downtown during this year's Piccolo Spoleto arts festival. Studley admits that "a certain group of people went to see Emperor," i.e. those of more liberal political beliefs, but Piccolo draws audiences from all over the country. So when they took surveys at the end of each show, they got a good variety of responses.
The surveys asked for opinions on faith. These comments would form the basis of a new experimental ensemble play, Treeligion. To get some juicy material, Deuce asked fundamental questions like: Do you consider yourself religious or not? What does religion mean to you? Why does it exist, and does one religion have it right?
"The responses ran the gamut," says Studley, "from very religious to thinking it's a complete sham. Some people thought that religion exists because we fear death or want to explain the unexplained. A lot considered themselves spiritual rather than religious."
Treeligion takes these varying answers, collates them with texts from different religions, and looks for a common thread. "We're not writing any original text for this show," Catangay says. "It's a collage of myths, folklore, and direct quotes from the audience surveys."
Recently, Studley has been studying the subject of religion alongside a friend. "In our research, we were surprised to find out how many religious stories have so many similarities," she says. "Michael and I both have a Christian background, that's what we learned first. It has its own origins, but there are parallels with Greek myths."
The collage approach is a good way for Deuce to comment on religious issues without taking sides — or being run out of town. Studley and Catangay feel that the hot topic is a natural progression from their Bush-baiting prior production.
"The feedback after Emperor was pretty gracious," Catangay says. "Even though our message was obvious, we weren't coming down on the guy so much. We were trying to open up some sort of discussion."
One particular point of focus in Emperor was the role of media. "We gave different perspectives on controlling the masses through the media," Studley says. "There were some things that everyone in the audience could completely agree with or relate to."
Similarly, the pair hope to keep Treeligion broad enough to include something for everyone. "People will interpret it very differently," says Studley. "They'll feel differently about it. They don't know the histories or understand the parallels between these religions. It doesn't mean they aren't true. It means that everything has common roots."
Studley's research has opened her eyes to these roots. "We don't sit here and profess to know everything," she says. "We're educating each other. We want to provoke a discussion. We'll be offering talkbacks after every show."
Judging by the passionate responses to their initial questions, the talkbacks could get heated. Humor helped Deuce to handle the touchy subject of politics, but Treeligion will be a more serious affair. Nevertheless, the show's creators promise the play will feature theatricality, innovation, and the use of audience participation that make up their heavenly Deuce flavor.
One warning though: If you attend one of these chats and are asked to fill out a survey, be careful what you write — it might just fuel Deuce's next performance.