While Book of Mormon continues to conquer audiences with its disarming blend of raw heart and blasphemy, another excellent and equally subversive play about the Mormon faith will soon have its East Coast premiere at this year's New York International Fringe Festival.
The Mormon Bird Play, by gay playwright, Roger Benington, is like a Russian nesting doll of allegories, where one narrative is shed to reveal another and each story uncovers a new layer of meaning. Six male actors play little girls and gay boys, who become birds, that manifest themselves as Mormon missionaries, temple workers and pioneer women. Although, the themes of the play are not new - the complex nature of faith, the dangers of sexual repression and mob mentality - Benington refuses to spoon-feed his audience. Instead, he playfully teases out pieces of his morality tale through puzzles and cryptic rituals (taken directly from the secretive Mormon Temple ritual) that magically unfold in a brutal world of little children.
Benington, also an accomplished director and designer, is well known in Seattle, Salt Lake City and NYC for his bold productions of challenging plays such as Sarah Kane's deeply unsettling Crave. Artists who have worked with him often credit Benington for pushing their artistry to the next level. "He makes wonderful things happen. I knew I could grow so much as an artist under his direction," says Neo-Burlesque legend, Dirty Martini. "Roger has an unwavering attention to detail," adds Mireille Enos, the Emmy-nominated star of AMC's series The Killing, "It is remarkable watching him create the world of the play, painting a three dimensional canvas for his performers to step into. His choices are constantly surprising and filled with uncanny truth. Truth you only recognize as Roger's work unfolds."
Benington was born into a Mormon middle class family in Johannesburg. Of his upbringing, he recalls: "Growing up Mormon was definitively the substance of my childhood. I hated going to church. It was the place where I felt the least safe. In South Africa in those days there weren't a lot of Mormons, so the church that we attended drew its membership from a very wide area, some of them very rough. I was bullied a lot. I always felt like an outsider there." Benington recalls how the church put out a pamphlet called "To the One in Ten", suggesting that every one in ten males had homosexual tendencies and cautioning it's young members not to act on them: "I would look around the room and count the number of people. I felt very much alone."
From an early age Benington was obsessed with theater, directing plays and puppet shows at school and home and spending most of his time at the famous Market Theater, where original South African work was being produced. "There was a strange dichotomy in the country at that time because there were imported plays from London and America being produced and there was indigenous theater that was political in nature. I loved the spectacle of imports but they lacked the immediacy and urgency of the local theater." Beninton's eyes light up as he describes seeing the play Sophiatown about an ethnically diverse and culturally rich area that was bulldozed once the nationalist government came to power. "It was a musical about a boarding house with all these colorful characters whose lives and culture were ripped apart."
Right after high school Benington was conscripted into the South army, trained on 81mm mortar bombs and 106 mm anti-tank rifles and sent to fight in the Angola War on the Namibian border. Having come out to his superiors, Benington was flown to a psychiatric ward and put in front of a jury of psychologists who, after much deliberation, assured him that he wasn't really homosexual. Unable, to explore his love of theater in the military, Benington taught himself how to mime and started doing street performances on his passes from the army. But it wasn't enough: "It was a very harsh system. They brought you down. They were mean spirited, vicious people. The permanent force members were sadists and they put you through all manner of experiences to break you down and humiliate you. I encountered a lot of prejudice for being a Mormon." After surviving the army, Benington started making clothes and selling them at a flea-market, under his own brand named All Men Have Secrets. Then came time for his Mormon rite of passage, a mission in his native South Africa. For several months he worked in a black township. This was at a time when few whites would have dared to enter there. "I got to see what the lives of my fellow
Africans were like in reality. I got to see the dignity with which they lived their lives and the injustice and inequality of the system heaped on them."
After his mission, Benington was anxious to get out of South Africa. His ticket out was his admission to Brigham Young University. Although his parents wanted him to be an architect, Benington's true passion was theatre. After BYU, Benington was accepted to the directing program at Juilliard, where he studied under some of America's greatest directors and his personal heroes like Michael Kahn, Joanne Akalaitis, and Garland Wright. Juilliard nurtured his passion for staging challenging texts and infusing them with humanity and his own unique aesthetic. Actor/writer, Marya Sea Kaminski explains: "There are those brave artists who are not scared to take risks, and then there are the artists like Roger - who make risk-taking central to their work." Joshua Schmidt, the composer of Obie-winning Adding Machine notes: "Roger comes to the table with a strikingly clear vision of how the project at hand will be realized. Often he has either worked meticulously with the scenic designer to create not only a set, but a rhythmic and structural logic that will pervade the entire staging and lighting of the play. This meticulous care extends, of course to costumes, to sound and music, to everything really. That's a good way to describe Roger - he cares a lot - about everything and everybody. How wonderful that is..."
Benington's enigmatic stage designs are as ambitious as they are versatile. For his acclaimed production of O Lovely Glowworm, Benington built a giant moon out of old book pages that glowed and breathed like a surrealist painting come alive. But in The Mormon Bird Play, also designed and built by Benington himself, the stage is a hyper-naturalistic replica of a Masonic Temple, seamlessly shifting from an ordinary setting into a creepy playground for both the children and adults who inhabit it.
The Mormom Bird Play will perform at The Robert Moss Theater, 440 Lafayette St #4, New York, NY 10003 with performances on August 8 at 5:00pm, Sunday 10th at 7:00pm, Sunday 17th at Noon, Tuesday 19th at 8:30pm, Thursday 8/21 at 4pm. Tickets are limited and may be purchased in advance here.
For more information about The Mormon Bird Play go to mormonbirdplay.com