Performance Review: In The Pulpit With Aux Dog Theatre

In The Pulpit With Aux Dog Theatre

Khyber Oser
5 min read
Mark Dolson (played by David Cooper, Jr.) spars with Father Farley (Steven Suttle) in an ideological cage fight. (Craig Stoebling)
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Ladies and gentleman, welcome to the “Rumble in the Rectory.”

In the right corner, hailing from old-school
Catholicism, weighing in at a comfortably paunchy but undisclosed amount, wearing black with a Roman collar, we have reigning champion and “Most Tactful Priest in the Diocese” … Father Tim Farley!

And in the left corner, our challenger, a featherweight straight from the seminary, whose quick jabs, fiery idealism and brutal honesty make him a rising star in the amateur circuit … Mark “The Deacon” Dolson!

Let’s get ready to rummmmmble!

Aux Dog Theatre’s production of Mass Appeal, the Catholic Church’s ultimate ideological struggles—conservatism vs. liberalism, tradition vs. change, secretiveness vs. scandal—are personified by a Mercedes-driving wino priest and a street-smart, nave-naive seminary student.

This Catholic odd couple’s verbal sparring sessions remain as relevant today as when the celebrated play, written by
Bill C. Davis, made its Carter-era debut, or when the Church debated modernization measures in the early-’60s Second Vatican Council.

Mass Appeal opens with a spotlit Father Farley ensconced in his pulpit, delivering a bland, meandering sermon. Once he opens up the floor to questions, however, the fireworks begin. A booming voice from the back row asks Farley whether women should be ordained.

Meet Mark Dolson. He’s bright, brash and—oh, by the way—bisexual. But the orgies of his youth are behind him. Celibacy is his path now as Mark begins a trial run as a deacon, with the hope of entering that sacred fraternity of the priesthood.

“I think women
should be priests,” he challenges.

Father Farley dodges. He adjusts his glasses, mops his brow, steeples his fingers and stammers about man being made in the image of Christ.

Soon after, in the first of their many tête-à-têtes, a furious Farley and gloating Dolson meet behind closed doors in the rectory. They disparage each other’s shortcomings (think Cat Stevens’ generation-gap anthem “Father and Son”) but come to develop an unlikely friendship. Until, that is, Dolson’s disclosure of his promiscuous past threatens their bond and—more importantly—his future in the Church hierarchy.

In the role of Father Farley, Steven Suttle has found a natural fit. He portrays the kindly, well-intentioned character with deft understatement and excellent comic timing. David Cooper, Jr., as Mark Dolson, sparkles with an earnest passion, if, at times, an overly bombastic style. And director Craig Stoebling’s control of the space and players—with the exception of an awkwardly staged climactic action sequence—is full of grace. Amen.

Performance Review: Behind The Scenes With Mass Appeal ’S Acclaimed Playwright, Bill C. Davis

The Alibi spoke with Mass Appeal playwright Bill C. Davis by telephone prior to catching Auxilury Dog’s performance. Davis, who first saw Mass Appeal staged off-Broadway in 1980, also adapted the play into a script for the 1984 film starring Jack Lemmon and, in 2000, updated the play to ensure it remained relevent in the present.

Do you keep up with the smaller productions of Mass Appeal that are staged nationally and internationally?

I do. I went to one recently in Camden, N.J. That was interesting. The fellow who played the priest didn’t really know his lines very well. So I did tell him that.

What is the most crucial component to a successful performance of this play?

It mostly depends on the lead actors. The chemistry between them. Everybody comes with their own personality. I’ve seen the play many times, and it’s always different.

Who do you identify with more—Father Farley or Mark Dolson?

I identify with both. Father Farley wants to be loved and says what people
want to hear and uses his position in the parish to win approval. Mark is radical and wants to say exactly what’s on his mind and what people need to hear. I like being both of them.

What do you hope audiences come away with after the curtain falls?

Just that they look at themselves and their lives a little differently. And also their places in whatever institution they’re part of. Not just the Catholic Church, but any institution where they want to effect change and honor what they’re doing. The last line is what I like the best, where Farley says, “We must be allowed to shape the thing that has shaped us.” So that applies to religion, politics, country, family.

How has the Church’s sex-abuse scandal impacted the evolving message of the play?

I think the fact that the seminarian is actually dealing with his bisexual past and how that might affect his career in the priesthood could decrease the chance that he’d ultimately be the offending party.

Do you support the dictate of celibacy?

It intrigues me. Celibacy is a universal, spiritual discipline. It’s an honor, not a horrible repression. Going to Catholic School, you could always tell who was miserable about being celibate and who embraced it for minimizing the chaotic existence that romantic and sexual love can create. The point of the piece is: No matter what your orientation, if you try to be celibate, you’re going to have to be celibate. Gay, straight or bi, you’re going to have to be celibate. You make that dedication to yourself.

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