A university student raised in a religious cult finds himself beginning to doubt his lifelong beliefs in Jesse Mu-En Shao’s World Premiere drama The End Times, an engrossing, thought-provoking first collaboration between Skylight Theatre Company and Playwrights’ Arena.
Shao stand-in Tim (Christian T. Chan) and his childhood best friend Evan (Matt Pascua) have opted to spend their college years rooming in what would seem a comfortable if crowded frat house were it not for the strict code of conduct all residents must sign: “Absolutely no illegal drugs, alcohol or tobacco. Absolutely no member of the opposite sex allowed in the house.” And forget about dating, at least until you’ve put a ring on it.
It takes less than a year for a disillusioned Evan to move out, leaving Tim not only minus his best buddy but questioning why no one seems interested in his return to the fold, not housemaster Jamie (Nick Cimiluca), not Ruthann (Mariah Robinson), the pretty young Lord’s Restoration member Tim’s been crushing on, and certainly not recent convert Seth (Alexander Pimentel), who’s left his “pagan” Lutheran family to occupy Evan’s vacated lower bunk.
When the two longtime besties do manage to reconnect over basketball hoops, Evan not only resists Tim’s efforts to bring him back home, he begins to plant doubts in his bff’s head. Why, for instance, is Jamie pocketing $800 per shared room when Evan is now paying just $300 for one he’s got entirely to himself?
Add to this Tim’s realization that Mariah may not share his romantic feelings and you’ve got a confused young man in need of more than the rote teachings of cult leader Nelson (a videotaped Joe Spano).
Not that the words of those around Tim seem any less scripted or Scripture. (“Do you mind if I have a moment to fellowship with Evan?” “Don’t let an earthly relationship distract you from your daily portion.”)
In fact it’s only Evan who talks anything like a normal person, which must mean he’s speaking Satan’s words when he tells Tim to “fuck calling on the name of the Lord [and] ask Jamie where that money went!”
Whether you have a religious background similar to USC MFA grad Shao’s or feel as if you’re spying on some alternate universe or come from somewhere in between, The End Times makes for fascinating theater.
It’s eye-opening indeed to realize that there are folks (probably within blocks of the Skylight Theatre) who believe that everything they think, say, or do is in preparation for The End Time, their lives laid out for them from birth: “We grow up, we go to a college where there’s a church life, live in Corporate Living, graduate with a degree that’s Church approved and then march our way to the Full-Time Training.” Holy moley!
Playwright Shao could hardly have asked for a finer director than Jon Lawrence Rivera to helm his most high-profile project to date or a finer company of young actors to bring his words to life.
Striking NYC-transplant Chan anchors The End Times with his deeply felt Tim, whose scenes opposite the sultry, equally talented Pascua are the production’s most electric as the duo wage battle for their friendship, their futures, and perhaps their very souls.
Cimiluca, Pimentel, and Robinson pull off making purposefully stilted dialog sound as natural as possible, and Spano is compelling in videotaped sequences.
Christopher Scott Murillo’s handsome set takes us to various locales sans walls, the better to showcase Lily Bartenstein’s exciting projections and McLeod Benson’s vivid lighting design. (A nightmare sequence is stunning and real as nightmare sequences rarely are, thanks too to Phill Driscoll’s dramatic sound design.) Mylette Nora’s costumes are excellent as always.
The End Times is produced by Gary Grossman, Emyli Gundmundson, and Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx. Christopher Breyer is dramaturg. Casting is by Raul Staggs. Christopher Hoffman is production stage manager.
Intriguing and elucidating, Jesse Mu-En Shao’s The End Times shines a light into hidden places while heralding the arrival of a playwright who is most definitely one to watch.
April 22, 2106
Photos: Playwrights’ Arena