Shotgun Players Kicks Off 30th Season by Going to Church in 'Feel the Spirit'

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The Ashby Players marquee advertising 'Feel the Spirit'
'Feel the Spirit,' commissioned specifically for Zoom, runs through April 11.  (Patrick Dooley)

While it’s safe to say that the Berkeley-based Shotgun Players would have preferred to kick off their 30th anniversary season in person, their ongoing innovation has nonetheless given shape to a robust slate of upcoming events. In addition to their projected Mainstage season, combined with an attendant Champagne staged reading series as in years past, Shotgun has actually expanded their programming to add what they’re calling their “Bridge” series of four plays. These productions are performed exclusively online—as with their current production of Feel the Spirit—or with a combination of small audiences and streaming, helping “bridge” the transition between all-remote programming and full, in-person productions.

And indeed, season opener Feel the Spirit—a commissioned play written specifically for Zoom by Noelle Viñas—does feel transitional. Bringing the audience back to the early days of shutdown—and all of the awkwardness that entailed—as schools, theaters, and places of worship all shifted their practice online, Feel the Spirit revisits a moment in time perhaps not far enough removed to feel historic. Centered primarily on a “progressive” church congregation and their dynamic queer pastor, Gabriela (Vero Maynez), Feel the Spirit unpacks the everyday traumas and misconceptions of pandemic life and worship. To punctuate it all, an embodied holy trinity (Akaina Ghosh, J. Riley Jr., and Linda Girón) occasionally interjects their views on faith and human nature in triplicate verse.

God waiting for their entrance in 'Feel the Spirit,' by Noelle Viñas, with J. Riley Jr., Akaina Ghosh, and Linda Girón. (Jayme Catalano)

The struggles encountered by Gabriela are both personal and professional. And though they’re exacerbated by the pandemic, like many struggles, their roots lie outside of it. Gabriela’s luminous wife, Rebecca (Lauren Garcia), is pregnant with their first child. The congregation is welcoming but wary, with an attachment to their insular traditions despite their progressive mission. Gabriela still feels like the newcomer she is, and as the very real distance created by various stay-at-home orders and protocols begins to erode her community relationships, she finds her very faith shaken. Meanwhile, the pandemic continues apace, and grim statistics of both COVID cases and deaths scroll across our screens, as devastating now as the first time they rolled in real time from March to June 2020.

Lauren Garcia as Rebecca and Vero Maynez as Gabriela in 'Feel the Spirit,' by Noelle Viñas. (screenshot/Shotgun Players)

Directed by Elizabeth Carter, Vero Maynez as Gabriela is vivacious and compelling. Her frustrations with her reluctant congregants—some of whom pressure her to reopen the church for in-person services within a month of the shutdown—crease the corners of her eyes and furrow her brow. She exudes kindness, but also insecurity, as she internalizes the myriad complaints of her congregants.

As Rebecca, Lauren Garcia alternates between loving and longing. She wants to be supportive of Gabriela, but comes to the conclusion much earlier that perhaps she’s taken on too much. Fred Pitts and Jean Forsman, as a pair of church “elders” with contradictory views about Gabriela’s role and efficacy, provide a grounded energy to the overall production. And footage of the three faces of God—interspersed with that of blue skies, cherry blossoms, redwoods, and other natural phenomena—shifts the mood of the play from the workaday to the metaphysical. But the fact that even God thinks Gabriela should ditch her congregation doesn’t bode well for it, and we really only hear of the church’s spiritual pain circuitously, with Pitts and Forsman as conduits.

Fred Pitts as Carleton, Jean Forsman as Angie, and Vero Maynez as Gabriela in 'Feel the Spirit,' by Noelle Viñas. (screenshot/Shotgun Players)

Where Feel the Spirit falters is mostly in its format, and in making the case for a Zoom production as compelling, now that theater has mostly left the platform behind. Commissioning Noelle Viñas (whose recent Derecho delved into the human impact of electoral politics and grassroots campaigning) to explore the pandemic shutdown through a lens of faith and community is an inspired choice for Shotgun. But while plays like Derecho have had years to develop into their fullness, this play feels rushed, both in concept and in execution.

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A nominally “interactive” play, the audience is positioned as the congregation. But the interactivity is limited and superficial: a moment to drop gratitude on the chat, a muted singalong, the dreaded breakout rooms. Despite the very real stakes as experienced by the cast, the audience-as-congregation doesn’t get a chance to experience those stakes for themselves, and it’s difficult to “bridge” that distance.

Unlike some of the more innovatively crafted or raucously interactive streaming experiences that have pushed the boundaries of what’s possible with these technologies over the past few months, Feel the Spirit gets an earnest, face-forward Zoom meeting experience with very little to separate it technologically or creatively from the “early” days of Zoom theater. The overall effect is very much that of a production designed to make one yearn wholeheartedly for the return of a live theater experience.

When we look back upon this past year, it will be a blessing to have these records of our first impulses and evolving attitudes to draw from. It’s exciting to think that several years from now, should Viñas decide to revisit these characters and this time period, she’ll have this work to build from and expand upon. As seeds of a deeper historical narrative, Feel the Spirit displays great promise. But as a bridge to what otherwise looks to be a wild and long-anticipated anniversary season, it’s shaky at best.

'Feel the Spirit' runs through April 11. Details here.