Rock of New Ages

Are the crystal-arranging rituals of gong-happy new-agers really any different from the solemn-voiced genuflecting that undergirds the world's established blood religions? Does our willingness to profess unwavering belief--whether in the rock of ages or the age-old healing properties of rocks--somehow guarantee us a higher place in the grand scheme of things? And what happens when we blithely surrender our innate and, you might say, God-given ability to doubt and question spiritual dogma?

Such are the weighty issues that underlie the side-splitting humor in Sedona, playwright James Metropole's intriguing sendup about vainglorious gurus, starry-eyed disciples and so-called gospel truths. The two-hour production, which Metropole skillfully directs, is being presented at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center as a joint effort of Denver's Shadow Theatre Company and Off Center Productions. Despite the fact that a couple of scenes lapse into soap-opera-like myths, the well-acted production is nonetheless a riotous look at the chilling implications of blind faith.

Set in the geodesic-dome paradise of Sedona, Arizona (where, for a hefty price, mantra-muttering guides with names like "Journey" will take you on backcountry Jeep tours of the desert region's four "energy vortexes"), the play begins as Slick (Phil Boardman) arrives at the rented bungalow of his estranged wife, Persephone (Susie Ross). A potty-mouthed, hedonistic musician, Slick does his best to convince Seph, as he calls her, that he's committed to salvaging their seven-year-old marriage. Trouble is, Seph has "found the desert" and has no intention of returning with Slick to "that rat trap known as L.A." The part-time cocktail waitress has also fallen under the Svengali-like spell of Doctor Glorious (Jeffrey W. Nickelson), a local linen-suit-wearing, leather-purse-toting quack who claims to be blessed with supernatural powers. What's worse, Seph's belief in Glorious is so devout that she attempts to make quick converts out of her teenybopping best friend, Cynthia (Alexis Susman), and Slick. Seph even insists that the pair accompany her to Sedona's Festival of Universal Concordance, a ceremony that employs Indian, Aztec and Mayan rituals to celebrate the convergence of various planetary systems. (In reality, 10,000 new-agers assembled in Sedona in 1987 to chant, hum and meditate their way through the Harmonic Convergence atop Bell Rock, an event that prompted Mayor Ivan Finley to declare that, despite the absence of a discernible apocalypse, all that energy was "good for the economy.")

All of the actors balance a healthy appreciation for the playwright's wicked sense of humor with a clear understanding of the, well, gravity of their characters' circumstances. Although her role is primarily a supporting one, Susman's portrayal of the seemingly vacuous Cynthia--or just plain Cyn, as the 120-year-old native of Atlantis likes to be called--nearly steals the show. Sporting three-dimensional star-shaped earrings and a "One With the Earth" T-shirt, Susman somehow keeps a straight face when she lampoons Tina Turner's bell-ringing, gibberish-laden Buddhist routine. Her delightful pixie also earns chuckles and giggles when she attempts to purify Slick's aura with stones that possess male and female qualities. And even though Cynthia takes a backseat to the more serious goings-on in Act Two, the wily trust-funder re-emerges in pleasantly surprising fashion near the end of the play.

Nickelson's bravura charlatan brings to mind the always-on-the-make elan of a deceptively laid-back real-estate shark ("People do their lifetime in a weekend," he smilingly says of his infamous waterfall brainwashing sessions that take place in the middle of sand city). Until, that is, Glorious realizes that he's losing control over his prized pupil, Seph. Turning the tables with precise timing and flair, Nickelson delivers a fully realized portrait of a man who desperately demands absolute loyalty from the very people he purports to be serving in the name of a higher authority. It's a spine-tingling portrayal of religion gone bad that's only a step away from Christ's plea to his disciples to remain awake with him in the garden of Gethsemane.

Although Ross and Boardman are saddled with a rambling, anti-climactic scene in Act Two that details their characters' unhappy union (making you wonder why the channel has suddenly been changed from Satire Central to the Wallow Network), both performers manage to invest their portrayals with admirable empathy. Ross, in particular, tugs on our heartstrings when she delivers a touching soliloquy about her darkest moment of despair.

It's worth remembering that no less a personage than George Bernard Shaw once upbraided the Church of England because it had become, in Shaw's opinion, "the church in which you must not laugh." In keeping with that spirit, this vastly entertaining production humorously illuminates our sacred need to believe in something--anything--larger than ourselves.


Sedona, presented by Shadow Theatre Company and Off Center Productions through December 19 at the Ralph Waldo Emerson Center, 1420 Ogden Street, 303-837-9355.


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