Televangelism Goes Extreme in ‘Soul Collector’

It’s no secret that people get touchy about religion. And when religion touches politics … well, the benefits of having those conversations are usually not worth the risks if you don’t know really know each other. No person should really go there in polite company.
The Unicorn Theatre has hired local playwright Ron Simonian to go there. During the Christmas season, no less.
The Soul Collector, an “adults only” show that is playing through Dec. 23, is a biting satire of TV preachers and their media empires. Running barely 90 minutes, the show is structured simply as one of the sermons by the Rev. Lester Dupree. The audience for the show is the in-studio crowd as his sermon is being televised around the world.
Dupree is a mix of Fred Phelps and Rush Limbaugh, mixed with the style of any slick-talking televangelist you would find on the late-night channels. His message to the audience is simple and point-blank: The world will end soon, and unless you get your life right and give him money, you will find yourself in Hell.
Backed by his wife and two daughters, Dupree roams the stage for more than an hour, preaching about the conservative benchmarks: abortion, homosexuality and feminism. As the sermon progresses, however, we see cracks form in the support from his family. As much as they believe in what their patriarch is saying, they are not immune from having serious questions.
Simonian, who plays the Rev. Dupree, satirizes the conservative Christian viewpoint just by taking it to the extreme. He makes obvious references to some issues from our recent election (too soon?). To get his point across, he frequently tells his stories in song form, with lyrics such as “Jesus never crashed a plane” and “There are many children in Hell.” For about 70 minutes, he pulls no punches, and more than one person in the audience was heard gasping from a particularly uncomfortable joke or viewpoint. There is a particularly unsettling subplot about the effect of such extreme ideas on children.
For as far as he goes (and he does go far), the shift in the last 15 minutes of the show is rather jarring. It’s almost as if Simonian wants to make sure he doesn’t permanently cross the line, and he ends the show by providing some comfort to those audience members who may be seriously offended. Unfortunately, that undoes much of what he spent the rest of the show building up – he falls into his own trap. Most of the show is a look at the dangers of preaching and judging others. Then the play turns preachy and judgmental.
The cast is great. Simonian has the characteristics of a preacher down pat – fast talking, repetition, filling his pauses with “Amen” and “Hallelujah.” Kelly Main plays his wife, and she nails her role as the woman who stands behind her man, no matter what. She is awesome to watch when she’s sitting on the couch in the background, hanging on her husband’s every word.
Megan Herrera and Rachel Brennan Leyh play the daughters, and they bring vivacity to their roles of the girls who desperately love their father … even if they secretly think he’s not always right.
The Soul Collector is like some of Simonian’s other plays that I’ve seen – it doesn’t always work the way he intends it, but you can see what he’s trying to do. This is a funny, bracing play that, despite its ending, will give the audience some good hard laughs … and some conversation afterward.

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