Blessing the Childish

Mellissa Hughes and Matt Marks on the "The Little Death: Vol. 1" album cover.

First watch this.

Okay, now you know something of the world they’re coming from in Matt Marks’ The Little Death: Vol. 1, a performance piece directed by Rafael Gallegos, which is nearing the end of its run at the Incubator Arts Project at New York’s St. Marks Church.

The piece, dubbed a “post-Christian nihilist pop-opera,” is literally a boy-meets-girl story—the characters are Boy (Marks) and Girl (Mellissa Hughes). In this case the boy shoots the girl right off the bat. (Some music critics have suggested that this on-stage murder is what qualifies TLD:V1 as an opera at all.) Once shot, in the midst of what becomes the hyper-catchy song “OMG I’m Shot,” Girl proceeds to splatter blood everywhere; Boy tries to clean up while singing along. Now, exactly why Boy shoots Girl remains anyone’s guess, though I think some blame probably belongs to William J. Gaither and The Gaither Vocal Band. The “Vol. 1” in the title suggests that a better explanation may be on the way.

What follows “OMG I’m Shot” is all that led these two Christian teenagers to this point, and the story is as spare and straightforward as stories come. Apart from jumping in time back to the beginning of their story after the murder happens, the narrative itself is fairly conventional. Boy is bored, he falls in love with Girl, and she rebuffs him before inviting him to her church. And so on. The inevitable happens: They court each other. “I like Facebook,” he sings. She replies, “I like MySpace.” Girl also likes ice cream, handstands, ketchup, sunshine, chicken, mirrors, and Jesus. Boy likes hugging, kissing, touching, pinching, teasing, and begging. And the problem, of course, is that Girl’s Jesus always plays the cockblock.

Working against any straightforward prim-Christian-girl vs. horny-Christian-boy story is an endless string of innuendo: “Come Boy/Come to my church Boy,” she sings; beyond ice cream and sunshine, Girl’s likes also include carrots, pickles, and chimneys (just picture those objects, and know that Boy likes caverns and oysters); she likes neckties (tie me up?), blow pops, and highheels, too; when Girl sings Gaither’s “He Touched Me,” the only non-original song in the piece, it’s not so clear anymore who “He” is (though, was it ever?); etc., etc. There’s also a strip tease, performed by Girl with the train of a wedding dress. And when the stained glass window appears showing Jesus blessing the children—“He put his hands upon them…”—even that doesn’t seem so, well, Christian, anymore.

This is all to say that the creators’ visual and lyrical innuendo does little more—and this itself is a lot—than play on the innuendo that’s already built into so much of the Christian songbook, to say nothing of the way Christian girls especially are asked to imagine Jesus: as much a lover as a Lord and Savior.

So this is TLD:V1 in a nutshell. The teenage years are rough for Christian kids. They want to have sex, but they can’t. Even the Bible tempts them. It’s so frustrating.

But then again, throughout the play we’re offered what should be a comforting reminder from St. Paul. Printed out in dot-matrix on perforated office paper and strung around the balcony of the theater it reads: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish things away.”

If only.

The trouble with the staged version of Marks’ opera is that it remains childish even in the face of St. Paul, both in the way it works out the themes implied in the title—la petite mort, of course, is the little death of each little orgasm we ever have—and, to a degree, in the staging itself (e.g., there’s a mock crucifixion carried out awkwardly with duct tape).

You know how most Christian teenagers deal with the frustration of not being able to have sex? They have sex.

True, some of them don’t. And I don’t mean to suggest that those countless teenagers who do are somehow putting away childish things when they get down to business.

But no matter how aware the audience is of the innuendo and doublespeak going on between Girl and Boy—Boy, by the way, is much more direct—when performed, the whole thing can’t quite grow up. Despite St. Paul, TLD:V1 never shows an adult awareness of Christian infantilism or the illusions of Christian innocence in the way performers like Sufjan Stevens, say, or Daniel Smith are able to. Nor does it achieve an awareness of how susceptible adults remain to these same dark dreams. All we get is an inexplicable, unbelievable murder.

By contrast, Stevens’ deadpan face and knowing grin, his over-the-top ensemble costuming, and his maturity as a front man, let you know that he’s playing with childhood ideas only after having put them aside. He can stand up there and sing as convincingly, and sympathetically, about a killer of children as he does about childhood itself. It’s all nostalgia with him. And whether heading the Danielson Famille, or Danielson, or performing on his own as Brother Danielson, Daniel Smith becomes on stage a larger-than-life child himself, proof enough that he’s actually making something of Christian innocence instead of just trying to live it out, frustrating as it may be.

Now, the album version of TLD:V1, released in May by the classical music label New Amsterdam Records, doesn’t present a listener with any of the troubles of the opera’s realization on stage. The songs are the same, but the world of Boy and Girl is the listener’s to imagine. The album is a spectacular blend of modern electro-pop, 1970s gospel, and classic hip-hop (just as advertised); you’ll be reminded of current Radiohead, the best of the Postal Service, and in one of the LP’s many surprising moments and strange, often beautiful, juxtapositions, in “I Don’t Have Any Fun” you’ll swear there’s some Joy Division coming through.  There are notes, too, of both Stevens and Danielson. For their parts, Marks and Hughes are fabulously strong vocalists, and when not playing Boy, Marks can compose songs as arresting and as catchy as any you’ve heard all summer.

The pun I’m supposed to use to close this piece is too easy; recall that the performance is being staged by the Incubator Arts Project and that I said above that “when performed, the whole thing can’t quite grow up.” So, in place of that pun, here’s a note I took about one of the props while watching the play: “What is that blanket w/ arms called? ‘A SNUGGIE’?”

Scott Korb is the author of Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine. He is also is co-author, with Peter Bebergal, of The Faith Between Us (Bloomsbury 2007).