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The Matter of Frank Schaefer — Curio Theatre

untitled (144)The challenge in documentary theater is how to tell the story accurately, with the tone and intent of every speaker intact, while finding the dramatic spark that makes testimony and other material engaging. You have all the elements of a mystery or a complex courtroom conflict, but you have to find and order the components in a way that makes them taut and gripping.

Curio Theatre succeeds at the “gripping” part in its play, “The Matter of Frank Schaefer,” which nominates no author but is said to be the work of the company, directed by Gay Carducci, assisted by Colleen Hughes, who also performs.

“The Matter of Frank Schaefer” addresses the crux of more than one current issue. It hits at the extent to which traditional institutions, such at the United Methodist Church, and its adherents, the congregants of a specific UMC, Zion United of Iona, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, are expected, let alone obligated, to adapt to or accept changes in social mores, particularly when those changes are viewed by some, perhaps many, as important advances in toleration of personal human behavior or as inclusion of sincere church members whose lifestyles don’t gibe strictly with doctrine. It asks whether modern or personal sentiment allows for disobedience to consensual vows and policies and whether the penalty for such disobedience, willful and done in complete awareness of the infraction, is just from an operative point of view.

Given all the controversy it raises, the facts it  brings to light, the opinions its characters express, and the thoughts it provokes, “The Matter of Frank Schaefer” holds our attention and makes want to hear more. We in the audience have questions we would like satisfied, and which usually are, as we go through some searching that makes us rethink or reconsider a position. For instance, if Frank Schaefer, a UMC minister who violated established church code by officiating at the wedding of his son, Timothy, to another man, knew he was going against institutional doctrine, is he culpable and punishable beyond any mitigating circumstance or regardless of any sentimental or political grounds beyond UMC code? If the complaint about his officiating is made more from spite than piety and is lodged three years after the act, is it as legitimate as one made more from scriptural conviction and presented more instantly? It is incumbent on the UMC hierarchy to investigate or conduct a trial about Rev. Schaefer’s malfeasance? Should Frank Schaefer take the expedient approach and issue a simple written apology, as requested, to his bishop to summarily end the matter?

These are all addressed and all impinge on our understanding and attitude about the uproar Rev. Schaefer and UMC cause for each other.

Of course, facts don’t always rule out the emotional or the political. Rev. Schaefer performed an act at the request of his son who, at one point in his teens, contemplated suicide because of the inner conflict between his acknowledged homosexuality and his deep religious beliefs. Rev. Schaefer agrees because of the love he bears as a father, because his son asked him directly, and because he thought he could enjoy a combined family milestone and ecclesiastical pleasure in relative privacy, as Tim and his partner lived in Massachusetts, where gay marriage is legal in 2007, and his ministry was in Pennsylvania. The gay aspect, and in particular, the subject of gay marriage, may add a new wrinkle for some who take a particular interest in gay issues. It may color some audience member’s opinions beyond the purpose UMC may have in pursuing a case against Rev. Schaefer. Curio Theatre has certainly found a situation with a virtual prism of aspects, and it has illuminated each element via the testimony and documents “The Matter of Frank Schaefer’s” creators chose to include and depict.

Now comes the matter of presentation. This is where the Curio troupe may want to return to work, primarily to prune, polish, and prioritize. While everything about the UMC vs. Rev. Schaefer case seems complete and becomes clear, the folks at Curio may have tried too hard to be theatrically creative when the best approach might have been to stick a to “Dragnet” method, the facts, ma’am, just the facts.

By repeating the Methodist marriage vows as a round in which everyone starts and ends at a different time and speaks over each other, by overplaying a scene that commemorates the knocking over of chairs at Rev. Schaefer’s hearing, and by jumbling events in terms of time and place, the Curio team outsmarted itself. For theatrical sake, “The Matter of Frank Schaefer” needs high and low points and dramatic flow, but histrionic hijinks frequently get in the way of Curio’s purpose and muddy segments of the play in ways that would be remedied by concentrating on simplicity.

Curio often goes too far in attempting to be theatrically creative. Carducci and her colleagues don’t seem to trust that the power of their story is in its words and that the multiple characters who speak must be clearly identified and present their information in chronological sequence. The audience is always able to follow the gist of an passage, but some scenes seem to come from left field or in an odd order. Some characters don’t establish exactly who they are or how they relate to Rev. Schaefer’s story. One character, a man with pronounced mannerisms and confusing tricks of speech, seems to serve no purpose except to give actor Ken Opdenaker the opportunity for a mini-tour de force.

Curio also has to work at how it skews audience opinion. I would guess most of us are inclined to support Rev. Schaefer and his decision, not taken lightly, to officiate at his son’s wedding. I would guess the majority would be sympathetic to religious institutions relaxing their stances on homosexuality and other matters that are far different now than they were millennia ago. I would think the Curio crowd would root for Rev. Schaefer’s vindication and reinstatement as an ordained, commissioned Methodist pastor.

These leanings need to be based on more than sentimentality. They have to follow more from material presented in Curio’s wealth of text. The UMC, and those who claim ministerial betrayal from Rev. Schaefer, must be given respectful due. The bishops and other synod members arguing for UMC must be given the same level of sincerity and commitment as Paul Kuhn, playing Rev. Schaefer is. So must the people from Rev. Schaefer’s congregation, no matter how benighted or opportunistic their testimony reveals them to be.

Curio allows human range to some characters representing UMC leadership, but not to the level Kuhn gets to express the various sides of Frank Schaefer. The audience may go along with or agree with stiffer portrayals from ecclesiastical prosecutors and officials, but “The Matter of Frank Schaefer” would be richer and textured if either the belief or sense of duty of some prelates and litigators was expressed in a more natural and a less formal or utilitarian way. Aetna Gallagher and Colleen Hughes do a generally good job at endowing the UMC leaders with dignity and clarity, but a smile or more forceful expression of doing the right thing would benefit Curio’s overall production.

Mostly, I would recommend keeping “The Matter of Frank Schaefer” completely chronological. Moving in time is confusing and takes away from the escalation of what is occurring and the upheaval in Rev. Schaefer’s life, his congregants’ allegiances, and UMC affairs. Curio establishes some sweep but at the expense of clarity. Presenting testimony, documentation, and even behind-the-scenes effects of official church business, would be best accomplished by sticking to historical order. The exception would be the coming out and revelation of Timothy Schaefer, the gay son  at whose wedding Rev. Schaefer officiated. (Tim is one of three gay children of Frank and Brigitte Schaefer.) Curio is right in instinct and practice in interweaving Tim’s story within other events. It serves no purpose in terms of chronology and helps supply dramatic high points and diversion from pure testimony and reading of documents.

I make  mention the dramatic waywardness of “The Matter of Frank Schaefer” because I think Curio, in general, did an admirable job at bringing this intrinsically fascinating and timely story to the stage. I congratulate Carducci and her actors for their entire effort while hoping to point out how “The Matter of Frank Schaefer” can be stronger and even more riveting.

The Schaefer case has enough twists and turns to keep one engaged and to keep one’s mind working actively as information is presented. We know the motives of both Rev. Schaefer and those who complained about his action. We see the dilemma some in the UMC synod had in chastising the Lebanon minister while others considered it imperative. We hear from congregants who adore Rev. Schaefer and depend on his ministry and from others who denigrate the pastor and say he failed them. Steve Carpenter certainly makes us understand the complicated considerations of the man who brings Rev. Schaefer’s violation to the attention of the synod, but we want to see more of him and more of others who may be in league with him.

So much mitigates our attitude. Rev. Schaefer takes care to inform his bishop that he has decided to enjoy the honor of wedding his son to another man, yet he never tells anyone at Zion United, his Lebanon congregation. He experience the pride and honor of his act, yet he is aware of the prudence of keeping it hushed. This dichotomy alone is the stuff of drama. UMC is aware of Rev. Schaefer’s infraction yet does nothing until the congregant portrayed by Carpenter complains. How important can the matter be if it didn’t trigger immediate controversy or action within the UMC hierarchy?

You see why “The Matter of Frank Schaefer” retains your interest even when chairs are being slammed against the Curio stage or characters are speaking over one another. The play blends basic humanity with practical matters, each is worthy of our consideration.

Carducci and her entire cast rate overall kudos for their work. Paul Kuhn radiates decency and ministerial warmth as Frank Schaefer. He wins your respect because he has the humility to understand his disobedience, even if committed  out of love and accepting support for a son who was so troubled as to consider taking his life rather than facing its reality. Kuhn’s Rev. Schaefer admits to his violation of doctrine and asks for forgiveness in the name of understanding. Because of his gentleness and his inner battles, he emerges as the kind of man you might want to consult on pastoral matters or even less spiritual decisions such as life choices. Kuhn’s portrayal engenders such respect I have found it impossible, or at least personally distasteful, to follow journalistic convention and refer to Rev. Schaefer by his last name alone.  In writing this article, I have felt compelled to give Rev. Schaefer the honor of his title. Jewish though I am, I would not hesitate to consult with Rev. Schaefer, as portrayed by Kuhn, on a spiritual matter were he in my midst (which, being in Lebanon, Pa., he is!).

Steve Carpenter, Aetna Gallagher, Ken Opdenaker, Colleen Hughes, and Tina Giovannone play a variety of characters and while I believe some can benefit from more definition or relaxed traits, I was impressed with every portrayal and with the amazing range of people this able crew brought to life.

Paul Kuhn’s set in basic but makes cunning use of the stained glass patterns in diverse shapes and configurations.  Aetna Gallagher’s costumes served well to keep dress basic and right for several occasion while adding accessories when necessary to distinguish a character.

“The Matter of Frank Schaefer” runs through Saturday, December 6 , at Curio Theatre, 4740 Baltimore Avenue (48th and Baltimore), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. No performance is scheduled for Thanksgiving, Nov. 27.  Tickets are $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-525-1350 or by visiting www.curiotheatre.org.

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