The Winnipeg Fringe Festival wrapped up last week (to be replaced this week with Folklorama; there’s always something going on in Winnipeg!) and at the insistence of a friend who’d seen it, the wife & I attended along with my insistent friend et ux the play “Pentecostal Wisconsin” by Ryan Paulson. (Minneapolis readers may be interrested, the show is running at the Minnesota International Fringe Festival in Minneapolis from the 5th-9th.)
Pentecostal Wisconsin is a one-man show about growing up in a Pentecostal church in a Scandanavian town in Wisconsin. Very interresting… and best of all, it comes with an eerie level of accuracy that can’t be achieved without having lived it. If your memories include a youth group like his, you kinda want to join in while he’s singing “Oh, you can’t get to Heaven… in a Catholic mass… (repeat), Oh, you can’t get to Heaven in a Catholic mass, ’cause God don’t like all that stained glass! All my sins are washed away, I’ve been redeemed!” But then again, you kinda don’t want to join in. He does impressions of some of the people in his church, and in these impressions, most of us could see the faces of people we knew. It was downright uncanny. He also did the travelling evangelist pretty well.
The 70-minute show takes you through Ryan’s own youth, painting pictures of “Bunny and Roy” from his church, and “Blake,” the son of the most respected family in church, the one who was going to become a pastor. All the details are there, including the title of his science report, “How God Made the Earth.” He takes us through his crush on April, the daughter of the most respectable family in church, and through his calling to become a pastor. Throughout tha play, a recurring theme emerges about how to hear God’s voice, how to know he’s talking to you, calling you. Standard fare for Pentecostals. Problem is, God is hard to hear when you want to know which burrito to order at Taco Bell or which colour of crayon to use for a picture you’re drawing in school. And sometimes he’s hard to hear about more important stuff too… even if you are really listening.
Ryan, of course, ends up not becoming a pastor, but moving to New York instead. Here’s the thing… the play leaves you somewhere on a continuum of possible reactions. If you still attend a church like the one he describes, you feel sorry for him but are very concerned and hope he’ll come back to Jesus real soon. If you’re not uptight about it, you might have had a good laugh at yourself though. If you’re anti-church, anti-religion, and almost anti-God, you’re glad he got free of those religous nuts. Or you’re on the continuum someplace in between, trying to figure out your mixed emotions about it. In the end, I think we see a few milestones in Ryan’s journey, but only thus far…. and we’ve yet to see how it turns out. He does exhibit some of the basic emerging church longings, and seems to be in the midst of his own “detox.” As the play ends, it seems a little as though he’s thrown out Jesus with the bathwater… but that’s never crystal-clear. At one point in the play, you think he’s about to start preaching.
One thing is clear… the version of Christianity that Ryan Paulson grew up with seems to have been tried and found wanting. Though it’s a bit hard to recognize, he just might be closer to really finding his friend Jesus now than he ever was in the church. Anyone seeking to understand why an exodus from some of the more traditional churches is taking place might enjoy this play. I give it a good recommendation.