Prepare to have your sins washed away in the blood of Jesus! The Reverend Bobby Angel returns to 4th Line Theatre in the revival of Gimme That Prime Time Religion, on now until Saturday, August 29th at the Winslow Farm in Millbrook.
With shouts of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” echoing over the rolling hills of Millbrook, 4th Line’s Creative Director Robert Winslow brings back his signature character for the first time since 2002, under the direction of Kim Blackwell.
People will be saved, ailments will be healed, songs will be sung, and the Lord will be praised in this high-energy and hilarious — yet biting — satire of evangelical religion and the television preachers of days gone by.
First developed by Rob Winslow in 1979 under the title Arnest Engley’s Miracle Crusade, Winslow based his character on real-life television faith healer Ernest Angley, who created controversy in the 1980s when he claimed he could cure HIV, AIDS and cancer via his televised “miracles”.
As he travelled it throughout North America, Winslow evolved the play by introducing hints of other television evangelists including Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, and Benny Hinn. From laying hands on television screens to requesting funds to keep the ministry alive, Gimme That Prime Time Religion is a hilariously cynical look at the strange world of television evangelism.
The play is a one-of-a-kind interactive experience, where the fourth wall is shattered and the audience becomes the captive congregation of a high-energy religious onslaught by Reverend Bobby Angel and his ministry. Having recently returned from Communist China, Reverend Angel and his team are on a cross-Canada tour and have found their way to Millbrook to save the souls of Kawarthas residents through praise, dance, testimonials, and song.
While Gimme That Prime Time Religion is straight-up satire, what makes the show work is that the actors perform their parts with the utmost conviction. While it’s obvious to the audience that it’s all a send up, the actors take it extremely seriously — increasing the ridiculousness of what’s happening on stage. But, in true Winslow style, by the midway point of the production a disturbing and dark undertone to the drama appears — and the show becomes a biting criticism of blind faith.
Just as the play has evolved over time, Winslow has wisely rewritten this production to reflect modern times by tying in topical issues and politics. It’s all in there: Isis, terrorism, same-sex marriage, the girls of Bethune St., Caitlin Jenner, and much more. Although it’s a tribute of sorts to the television evangelism of the past, Winslow creates relevant comedy by firmly placing the show within the world we recognize.
Winslow gives an incredibly gripping performance as the faith healer Angel. Hypnotic and larger than life, Angel is the living embodiment of every over-the-top preacher who has ever damned a congregation to the pits of hell. Charismatic, fiery, and filled with the glory of God, Winslow paces, rants, dances, shouts, prays, and preaches in the most spectacular way.
What makes Angel even more interesting is that, while his motives and techniques are questionable, his convictions seem to be pure. He truly does believe in his message and his preachings, popular or not. He believes he is doing right in the world. However, his faith is closely connected to his own arrogant delusions, making him a very dangerous man to follow.
High-spirited and unstoppable, Winslow gives a performance of a lifetime — one that will repulse the audience while at the same time making them jump out of their seats shouting “Hallelujah!”.
Warming the audience up before Angel’s arrival is Jeff Schissler in the role of Brother Orville, Angel’s junior partner. Another high-energy performer, Schissler plays a likeable — if not slightly smarmy — preacher who beautifully plays off audience members with ad libs and Amens.
Joining Schissler is actress Alison Palmer as Brother Orville’s wife Tammy. Part Tammy Faye Bakker and part Tammy Wynette, Palmer’s Tammy is a former Willie Nelson groupie who turned to the Lord.
Together, Palmer and Schissler create a dynamic song-and-dance team who support Angel’s crusade. With incredible choreography by Monica Dottor, the duo lead the audience through a handful of rousing gospel numbers with elaborate dance routines that seem to come out of nowhere and become some of the highlights of the show.
Although all of the musical numbers have their own special qualities, it is Winslow, Schissler, and Palmer’s performance of “Armageddon Club” — featuring a hilarious cameo by Dane Shumak — that’s the stand-out musical moment. It’s musical satire at its finest.
The unexpected performances of supporting actors Tim Ziegler (as Dean) and Dian Marie Bridge (as Shirley) add depth to the show, transforming it from a side-splitting comedy into a biting satire. The drama created by these two performers brings out the edgier aspects of the play, allowing Winslow’s true opinions on evangelism and faith healers to come to the forefront.
A special shout out goes to the “Holy Children” made up of Madeleine Bryenton, Maude Rose Craig, Max Czmielewski, Ethan King, and Samuelle Weatherdon. A delightful addition to the show, the children bring a youthful (and bizarre) element to the show that gets more surreal each time they rush onto the stage.
Like living props on a religious stage of madness, the children’s involvement in the play becomes more grandiose with each costume change and musical number, making the audience wonder just what they’re going to do next. Again, these young actors perform their roles with so much conviction that the ridiculousness of it results in some of the funniest moments of the show.
Gimme That Prime Time Religion is a fast-paced one-act play that lies somewhere between good-natured comedy and cutting-edge commentary. The religious satire may not be for everybody, but Winslow gives one of his greatest performances in bringing one of his best characters back to life.
A true winner, Gimme That Prime Time Religion is one of the funniest and most thought-provoking comedies I have ever seen in the Kawarthas.
Gimme That Prime Time Religion runs Mondays through Saturdays until August 29th, 2015, at the Winslow Farm in Millbrook. Shows start at 6 p.m. and tickets are $35 for adults and $29.50 for youth.