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Fun At Church

Crowd-Pleasing Production Extends Arena Players Run

By John Barry | Posted 5/7/2008

The Pastor's Anniversary

By Robert Russell

At Arena Players May 9 and 11

Instead of the expected Church, which apparently wasn't ready for production, Arena Players last week offered an enthusiastic audience an extended run of local playwright Robert Russell's The Pastor's Anniversary. As one of the producers explained in a brief introductory, turn-off-your-cell-phone speech to the audience, it's a church comedy. "If you didn't see it, you'll find it delightful; if you did see it, you'll find it even funnier the second time."

This particular reviewer's heart sunk a little at hearing about the program change, but, for a three-hour play without much of a plot, The Pastor's Anniversary went by quickly. It's the third in Russell's trilogy of church-related comedies--the first two are The Mortgage Burning and The Church Lottery Ticket--and if Friday night was any indication, the tickets are still selling like hot cakes after a two-month run. That means that if anyone wants to catch it, there are two more productions as of this edition's printing: Friday, May 9, and Sunday, May 11.

Russell, who gets a featured role in this production as the Rev. Michael, is offering a joyful, funny, and audience-inclusive play that doesn't come to bury the church, but to poke gentle fun at some of the basic flaws of the congregation. What he comes up with is a smorgasbord of gospel singing, skits, modified break dancing, and occasional cross-dressing, all tied together into the play's central premise: The parishioners of St. Peter and St. Paul Baptist Church are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the Rev. Royster.

To begin with, we're presented with representatives of the congregation. Brother Herman (Randy Tilghman) and Brother William (Michael Harris) are two of the strait-laced elder men. Sister Jean (Joyce Baylor-Thompson) and Sister Cora (Linda Howard) are two of the old women, complete with lace bonnets and Sunday dresses. They've come out of an evening service that, apparently, people rarely come to, for fear of being mugged. Sister Bee (Cynthia Forbes) plays the finger-wagging de facto queen bee, shuffling around and herding the flawed congregation. Meanwhile, the flamboyant Brother Reggie (Tyrone Chapman) wanders around, occasionally taking out his handheld mirror to readjust his somewhat precariously placed Little Richard wig, while buttoning up his flashy suits (using the wrong buttons).

Russell gives most of the members of the congregation their time in the spotlight, which probably explains the somewhat extended length of the evening. But by the end of the night, despite the title, the message is really about the body of St. Peter and St. Paul itself: a somewhat nutty but well-intentioned group of active parishioners.

Russell's most interesting character is, not surprisingly, the Rev. Royster, played smoothly and with a sense of humor by Floyd Gilliam. In the first act, we have a brief reprise of Royster's checkered past, when as a dealer he hung out on the corner outside the church. In a very funny scene, Sister Bee turns out to be a match for the drug dealer and winds up, somehow, tying him up to a tree, handcuffing him, photographing him, and then giving him the chance to see the light. Then we skip to 10 years later, when the one-time drug dealer has turned into a somewhat self-satisfied and even self-righteous reverend. Gilliam does an excellent job of portraying a pastor who has disposed of his bling but retains some of the old attitude.

The plot winds its merry way at his own pace. Russell gives the six-person ensemble of young altar boys and girls the chance to perform two well-choreographed dances, which may not fit right into the plot, but add significantly to the entertainment quotient. Then there's the appearance of Mother Gilda Richards, played by a very funny Dawn Chapman. This 80-year-old woman has discovered the joys of painkillers. Mixed with a little spiked punch, they propel her in the direction of the visiting the Rev. Michael. Meanwhile, thanks to her role of Mekeeba, Royce Marshall offers a brief but rousing recital of one final gospel song, "Everything's Gonna Be Alright." That may be the message behind this enjoyable, expansive look at a flawed but well-intentioned congregation. So check this one out. In this production--and it's rare in community theater--the audience has as much fun as the performers.

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