Religion has always been a central element of American political strife, with the excesses and calumnies of Christian fundamentalism providing a broad and sustained target for satire by believers and nonbelievers alike. Playwrights Catherine Capellaro and Andrew Rohn flout the latest manias and offer up laughs with Blasphemy, their new "wicked trio of musical comedies that takes aim at creationists, George W. Bush, Rapture Christians, and intolerance of all stripes."
Premiering at the Bartell Theatre on January 9, this production is the latest creation by the husband-and-wife team, whose previous musical Walmartopia broke theatrical box office records in Madison before hitting the national stage with an Off Broadway run last year. As they did with their send-up of the smiley-faced corporate behemoth, the pair goes for laughs in Blasphemy by taking on an American institution, in this case the tenets of faith-based politics.
In a nod to Dante's Divine Comedy, the show is split into three tales, titled "Rapture," "Purgatory," and "Paradise." The anticipation of politicians like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin for the return of Jesus, a disco meditation on death, and a parable about the revelation of evolution to Adam and Eve together comprise a wicked triptych of sacrilege.
Blasphemy is being produced as a benefit for the Bartell, which marked its tenth anniversary this year and was the theater where Capellaro and Rohn produced their first show, Temp Slave, through the departed Brave Hearts Theater company.
"We have been incredibly lucky to have grown up as writers and artists in this amazing town," declares Capellaro about their motivations for supporting the Bartell with the production. "Both Temp Slave and Walmartopia had enormously popular runs at the Bartell, which propelled the shows and us to destinations beyond Madison. Theater cannot exist without a space, but the Bartell provides more, the support and community spirit that theater needs to live. Six different theater companies call the Bartell home, and some of us feel like it's home. The Bartell has little corporate support -- it needs us to help it survive."
Capellaro and Rohn responded together via email to questions posed by The Daily Page, discussing the origins of Blasphemy, lessons they learned with Walmartopia, their version of Sarah Palin, and the role of religion in American culture.
The Daily Page: What inspired you to write Blasphemy?
Capellaro and Rohn: Blasphemy is three different musicals, each blasphemous in its own way. "Rapture" was inspired by George W. Bush's connection to evangelical Christians. In that show, Bush, Cheney, Palin and the inner circle sits in a bunker awaiting Jesus's second coming. "Purgatory" is a disco musical featuring a taskmaster choir director, Satan, and is about the redemptive power of disco. "Paradise" was inspired by the resurgence in creationist beliefs, masked as "intelligent design."
Andrew is a Buddhist with a degree in religion. We feel spirituality is a profound and beautiful thing, but we're horrified by the evil done in the name of religion. We also like to write silly musicals and religious fanatics make funny characters.
How long did it take to develop the concept, and then assemble the script? When did you finish it?
"Rapture" and "Purgatory" are revamped "Blitz" shows, which means they were initially written in less than 12 hours. Every year, Mercury Players produces a Blitz and we often create a musical overnight, kind of like God created the universe. "Paradise" has evolved more slowly, through months of writing and discussion. All the shows continue to evolve throughout the rehearsal process.
How do the both of you collaborate on putting together the final product?
We write separately and together. Andrew writes the music and lyrics and Catherine writes the book. We have discussions and arguments and brainstorms. Somehow it comes together.
What did you learn from the multiple productions of Walmartopia that informed your work on Blasphemy?
We learned that shows are always changing. What's amazing in one production might not work at all in a different venue or with a different actor. We learned to let go of things we loved. In New York we also learned some lessons about trusting our instincts and fighting for our vision.
How long has the show been in production? How have you been involved with this? Who is producing and directing?
This show began rehearsals on December 2 and will open January 9. It's a very quick turnaround. Andrew is the music director and Catherine is the director, so we are involved in everything. The production is a benefit for the Bartell Theatre, which we love. They have been extremely supportive and helpful, and people from many theater companies are involved.
Can you reveal any of the roles in the show, and what people might look forward to seeing?
Well, people won't be seeing Adam and Eve's naughty bits, so we can get that out of the way right off the bat. People will see our versions of Bush, Cheney, and Palin. They will discover who the Anti-Christ is. They will see Satan and her sidekick perform a musical medley unlike anything created on this earth. They will meet a singing/dancing fish and Eve's real family. They will see a shadow puppet show that contrasts the religious and scientific versions of history.
What kind of musical accompaniment is there for Blasphemy? Is it best described as a musical, a disco opera, or something else?
We like the sound of "disco opera." The show is definitely a musical comedy, but the score incorporates many influences: bossa nova, rock, bluegrass, gospel, and of, course, disco.
Is this comedy divine?
In the secular sense, yes.
How did Dante inspire the structure of Blasphemy? Why is the first part titled "Rapture" rather than "Inferno"? Is there something to be read into this?
In our "Rapture" show, the world has been plunged into chaos and scarcity because of the greed and foolhardy policies of the Bush reign. But the Rapture Christians think they're doing the right thing because Jesus is coming to lift them all up anyway.
Have you been influenced by any recent pop culture comedic takes on religion in America?
Unfortunately, no. We don't get out much; we have kids. We've been reading lots of great books, though. Richard Dawkins, Forty Days and Forty Nights by Darwin's great-great grandson, about the legal battle to keep creationism out of science classes in Pennsylvania. Of course The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and The Onion have inevitably affected the way we joke about these things.
You describe Blasphemy as "a wicked trio of musical comedies that takes aim at creationists, George W. Bush, Rapture Christians, and intolerance of all stripes." Will Bush still be an entertaining subject once he's out of office?
What makes you think he's going to leave willingly? (We play with this idea in the "Rapture" segment.)
Where does Sarah Palin fit into all of this? Who is playing her?
Without giving too much away, we'll just say she plays a pivotal role in the future. She is played by the amazing Corianne Wilson, who has nailed her, beauty queen wave and all.
What are you suggesting with the revelation of evolution in the Garden of Eden?
Well, we believe in evolution. It's the way things work. We also think that evolution has as much drama and wonder and beauty as the Biblical explanation for things. Part of the premise for "Paradise" was trying to imagine a historical basis for the story of the Garden.
What is your message on the role of religion in contemporary American culture, particularly in the form of fundamentalist Christianity?
Well, we think Biblical literalism is dumb. Even if God exists and is sending people messages, they still need to be evaluated and interpreted. Some people think stoning a woman to death for adultery is a fine and moral thing to do. We feel bad for rational and open-minded Christians who are grouped with people who spread messages of hate and intolerance. We are especially concerned with anti-gay Christians, who have been able to pass regressive laws like Prop 8 in California and with anti-science Christians who have hijacked the education of our children by making the teaching of a well-established scientific principle controversial.
Is laughter a formidable response to this?
Yes, laughter is a formidable response to everything.
Where do you hope to spread Blasphemy over the long run?
Wherever there's religious intolerance, there should be Blasphemy.
Blasphemy will premiere on the Drury Stage at the Bartell Theatre on Friday, January 9, and will run every weekend through the end of the month with 8 p.m. shows on Thursdays through Saturdays and a 2 p.m. matinee performance on Sunday, January 18. The cast features are many of the city's finest actors, including Marcy Weiland, Christopher Babiarz, Pete Rydberg, Kelly Maxwell, Dan Graupner, Bonnie Balke, Sarah Whelan, Corianne Wilson, and Don Dexter. The band, meanwhile, consists of Rohn (who also plays in VO5, Sunshine for the Blind, and the Merkins) on keyboards, Biff Blumfumgagne (Reptile Palace Orchestra, the Gomers) on guitar and violin, Drew Szabo (VO5, The Madgadders) on bass, and Michael Brenneis (The Dave Stoller Trio, the Sean Michael Dargan band) on drums.
Currently busy with rehearsals, the playwrights and a few others involved with the show are also taking some time to polish their disco chops with V05, which is playing a New Year's extravaganza at Cafe Montmartre. "Disco wasn't made in heaven," declares Capellaro, "but heaven knows it should have been."