By Topher Cusumano; Directed by Irene Lazaridis
Produced by Phoenix Theatre Ensemble
Off Off Broadway, Play
Ran through 2.17.18
The Paradise Factory, 64 East 4th Street
by Sarah Weber on 2.17.18
Lori Elizabeth Parquet in The Cult Play. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.
BOTTOM LINE: A follower has run away, the Goddess is due for a second coming, and the internet proves more overwhelming than expected—just how far is this cult’s leader willing to go to maintain order?
It’s easy to fall for the notion that cultists are merely deranged people, or that only a person entirely devoid of rational thought could fall prey to the ramblings of a self-proclaimed prophet. Thankfully, the characters in Topher Cusumano’s The Cult Play fly in the face of such preconceived notions. Over the course of the action, staged by director Irene Lazaridis, we are offered a glimpse into how anyone could find themselves ensnared by a cult's promises of personal fulfillment and glory.
Upon entering the Paradise Factory Theater, the box office welcomes you to “The Sanctuary,” as if you yourself are a new recruit. The stage itself is a marvelous display of designer JB Douglas’ handiwork: the multi-tiered hanging floral arrangements create the sense that you’re entering a sacred space. But that illusion starts to break almost as quickly as it was created when Lori Elizabeth Parquet abruptly enters as the sovereign Mama Pearl. She reaches into one of the plants, pulls out a bottle of pills, and frantically consumes a handful. This is funny at first, until her partner Papa Jaye (John Lenartz) enters to bear bad news. One of the sanctuary’s longtime followers, Charlie Bear (Ariel Estrada) has run off with some of the sanctuary’s money and some damning documents. Afraid this will inspire others to leave, Mama Pearl decides to announce to her followers that the Goddess central to their religion will soon return to the earthly plane. However, this ploy backfires, setting off an avalanche of trouble.
Along the way we meet Mama Pearl’s “Soul Scouts,” devoted trainees in her teachings, and learn about their various pasts. For instance, Clover (Layan Elwazini) was a frustrated and lost college student before joining the sanctuary; now she is sent on missions with her partner Diego (Josh Moserto) attract more followers. Diego’s past, frankly, is unclear; what we do know is he seems to have a suppressed violent streak and that he’s become deeply uncomfortable with the illicit affair he and Clover are engaged in. When they break up, Clover finds the snarky and overconfident web designer Mae (Stacey Raymond). The two women form an instant connection, albeit with different motives to start. Clover is convinced she has found a new recruit and seems oblivious to Mae’s flirtations.
To say that the performances in The Cult Play are merely stunning would be a gross understatement. The cast is truly a close-knit ensemble and work beautifully together. Parquet’s performance, however, is nothing short of masterful: the way she slowly unveils Mama Pearl’s capacity for manipulation and abuse is both captivating and terrifying.
The show's design is equally commendable. Douglas’ environmental design transforms the space, and stands in stark contrast to the horror we watch unfold. Attilio Rigotti’s video and projection design is especially impressive. He makes use of the entire space, projecting online chatter on both the floors and the walls. It is both fun to watch and an immensely clever nod to how a new online presence is swallowing up the Sanctuary.
Considering The Cult Play’s intimidating three hour run time, the time flies. The production keeps us engaged all the way. That said, the inconsistent development of Diego's character is frustrating. We get a strong sense of every other characters’ motives and tics, but Diego remains a mystery. In some scenes he feels like an integral piece of the plot, and in others feels like a mere space filler. It’s not clear if this is purposefully done, and if it is, Cusumano’s intent could be made clearer. Otherwise, The Cult Play provides a tragic view of life in a cult without shaming any of its characters. Cusumano and Lazaridis treat these characters with care so that they don’t turn into the kind of caricatures audiences have come to expect.
(The Cult Play played at the Paradise Factory, 64 East 4th Street, through February 17. For more information visit PhoenixTheatreEnsemble.org.)
The Cult Play is by Topher Cusumano. Directed by Irene Lazaridis. Costume Design by Debbi Hobson. Environmental Design by JB Douglas. Lighting Design by Aiden Dreskin. Video and Projection Design by Attilio Rigotti. Choreography by Madelyn Sher. Fight Direction by Kevin McGuire. Production Stage Manager is Meghan McVann.
The cast was Layan Elwazini, Ariel Estrada, Oscar Klausner, John Lenartz, Josh Moser, Lori Parquet, Stacey Raymond, and Elise Stone.