Holier Than Thou

Poison Apple Initiative's show draws reality TV and religion together in a thoughtful, thought-provoking way

Jousting for Jesus: (l-r) Jordan Cooper, Joshua Baker, Jen Brown, Austin Alexander, and Zac Carr
Jousting for Jesus: (l-r) Jordan Cooper, Joshua Baker, Jen Brown, Austin Alexander, and Zac Carr (Photo courtesy of Poison Apple Initiative)

Holier Than Thou

The Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo
Through July 6
Running time: 1 hr.

I usually hear the phrase "holier than thou" tossed around to disparage hipsters. But Bastion Carboni really means it. His new play, a reprise of Poison Apple Initiative's 2012 FronteraFest Long Fringe piece, pits seven angsty reality-TV competitors against one another for the chance to win the almighty powers of Jesus.

Carboni's powerful script and Bethany Perkins' energetic staging haven't changed much from the first production. The hourlong show begins with belly-laughworthy "audition footage" of several contenders who didn't make the cut: They say they'll use the powers to get that "Jesus hang time," to create "#worldpeace" (#perfect!), or to save the unborn from the 'bortionists. Almost 20 minutes later, the finalists' faces flicker onscreen for preshow interviews in which they're just as cocky and slutty and obnoxious as any self-respecting Real World roomies. The seven include Basil (Austin Alexander), a hyper-confident martial arts instructor; Dylan (Kacy Todd), the girl you saw dancing on the bar that one time; Donny (Joshua Baker), the token disabled competitor; and Rachel (Jen Brown), the badass secular Jew who calls Jesus out on his "psych 101 bullshit."

Though the videos are delightful and set the tone for the documentary-style play, they go on for too long. It's almost unfair to the muscular cast and Carboni's sharp wit to have a third of the performance recorded. Once we meet them in the flesh, the contestants tell their story as if on a reunion special on VH1. They sit in simple chairs and address the audience directly, which is as arresting as it is effective. It does occasionally feel static, but under Perkins' excellent direction, the stationary script becomes a humming force of potential energy. The actors never miss a beat, and though their characters are caricatures, each has beautiful moments of honesty and vulnerability, especially toward the end of the play, as they describe what being on a reality show is really like. Melanie Conrad is especially enchanting as Lila, the quietest of the crew, and Todd shines in the show's final moments.

The TV show is morally ambiguous, with challenges that include a leper scavenger hunt and turning water to wine by any means necessary (including opening some veins). But as Dan Solomon pointed out in his 2012 review of the play, the rules are somewhat unclear. Jesus himself is the host, but we're not sure exactly how the challenges or voting-off process works, and the conditions that come with the prize are disturbing and unexpected. It's not perfect, but hey, who is? Holier Than Thou thoughtfully draws popular culture and religious fervor together, a combination that leaves us with something to chew on long after the lights dim.

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Holier Than Thou, Austin theatre, Bastion Carboni, Poison Apple Initiative, Bethany Perkins, Kacy Todd, Austin Alexander, Joshua Baker, Jen Brown, Melanie Conrad

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