Writer/performer Seth Lepore makes an auspicious FRIGID Festival debut with Losing My Religion: Confessions of a New Age Refugee. This solo work is the first in a trilogy about what Lepore calls "the underbelly of the self-help movement," and for its intelligence and compassion it deserves intense praise; so too does Lepore's remarkable, deft acting.
The piece is directed by Thomas Griffin, and its shape is different from most solo plays I've seen. Usually in a one-man show, the actor either plays himself, confiding stories and anecdotes in the first person, leaning either toward confessional monologue (a la Spalding Gray or Mike Daisey) or the rhythms of standup and performance art (a la John Leguizamo or Jackie Mason); or he creates an array of characters in scenes and vignettes (think Eric Bogosian or Whoopi Goldberg); or, sometimes, the piece is a fully-formed play, with one actor playing all the various roles (Chazz Palmintieri's A Bronx Tale is an example).
Losing My Religion is none of the above, but more a hybrid of the first and second to create a loose version of the third. Lepore is tracing a narrative here that recounts how he arrived at his own particular approach to spiritual understanding, but he does so by sometimes breaking the fourth wall and addressing us as himself and other times immersing himself in other characters, in presentational or conversational settings. We come to realize, as the show progresses, that often these are characters he found himself listening to at one time or another in his life; what sneaks up on us in Losing My Religion is a well-reasoned argument for the notion that in matters as personal and powerful as choosing our way in life, it is up to us rather than others to make the decisions and figure out the rules.
Now I've probably made Lepore's show sound very serious, and it is in its way—but it's also extremely funny (the laughs are sometimes of the recognition variety). Among the characters we meet here are the facilitator of a men's retreat, a loquacious and superficial divorcée looking for enlightenment pretty much everywhere she goes, and the enthusiastic founder of a successful yoga business addressing a roomful of franchisees (the big news is product placement on The Biggest Loser). Lepore also plays several participants at a meeting of PGAA (I won't tell you what that stands for; you have to see the show to find out).
The writing and ideas here are smart, fresh, and stimulating, and Lepore's precise acting hammers them home. With no props and no changes to his simple all-black costume, Lepore manages to evoke each of the disparate folks in this show with subtle but distinct changes in his physicality. I'm not quite sure how he does it, but he actually looks a little bit different as he assumes the mantle of each of his characters. A financial self-help guru, for example, has a smile that's all gums, while the Catholic Boy Scout Troop Leader railing against the dangers of masturbation is all eyebrows.
So Lepore's performance is absolutely one to see, and the journey he takes in the show will provide fodder for conversation and contemplation afterward. I hope he will bring the rest of his trilogy to New York, and other work as well.