Treeligion is a heartfelt, innovative look at religion 

The Joy of Sects

War. Misogyny. Ruthlessness. Conservative attitudes. History hasn't been kind to the Ottoman dynasty, the realm that in its 16th Century heyday extended from southeastern Europe all the way to Asia and North Africa. But the empire deserves more credit than it gets.

There was only one way the Ottomans could rule over so many different races and religions. They tolerated them. The sultans who ruled the empire realized there was no profit in persecuting potential taxpayers. Pragmatism and capitalism overrode religious intolerance.

Deuce Theatre's Treeligion takes a similarly evenhanded, expansive look at belief systems, blending many different religions into what one cast member calls a "soup of thought." But don't expect to be spoon-fed. This is an experimental play that uses dance, movement, recorded soundbites, sign language, stage combat, and snatches of song to convey the sheer variety of beliefs in the world. The play has a structure, but creators Michael Catangay and Andrea Studley have left plenty of room for interpretation as well — just like any hefty religious text.

The show's main set piece is a tree with bamboo sticks for branches and masks hanging from a burlap-wrapped trunk, with black boxes stacked behind it. Like the tree, the boxes have more than one use (including a seat and a sacrificial altar). The opening scene, "Chaos," besets the audience with strange music, sounds, and radio news clips. The five performers enter in robes with their faces concealed under brown cloths, repeating some of the clips. As the figures line up, they create a great visual moment that is both alien and eerily familiar; they are part monk, part druid, part exotic polytheistic cult.

The cultists recount myths of a great flood and the creation of the world from different cultures, including the Congo, China, Guatemala, and Native America. These myths are punctuated by body movements and hand gestures, led by the Tree Spirit (Arlene Lagos). Some are familiar — God surveys the world and finds that it is good. Others are obscure and intriguing — there's a lot of begatting and one poor deity gets gelded, his genitalia strewn across the land.

After the tales of survival and rebirth come the show's most contemporary element. The performers switch to modern times, walking around the auditorium, quoting responses from a previous audience survey. The replies are lucid, thought-provoking, and a great way for Deuce to connect with the audience. The quotes are interspersed with prayers, rituals, and stories, always raising questions to ponder: Is religion a necessary evil because people need guidance? Or is a divine good? Is it a form of mind control invented by man to cow the masses, or is it a perfect interpretation of a holy text? If so, which one is right? What if they're all wrong?

Participation is an important part of the show, making it something to be experienced, not passively watched. While it's harder to follow a play if you're unexpectedly in it, there are enough regular theatrical moments to help make sense of everything. At 45 minutes, the play moves quickly, and the ending is abrupt. The audience can't tell that it's over.

Sometimes scary, occasionally humorous, and always entertaining, Treeligion definitely warrants more development. There are a few things to fix. The fight sequence needs to be tightened up a lot. There's a brief glimpse of face makeup that is hard to see in the dark. However, all the performances are energetic and impressively choreographed.

Treeligion won't conquer as much new ground as the Ottoman Empire, but it embraces more beliefs, and it deserves all the credit it can get.


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