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From Oct. 16 to Nov. 1, Raleigh Ensemble Players will present the North Carolina premiere of Handler, actor/playwright/screenwriter Robert Schenkkan's provocative new drama about religious faith and an answered prayer that has unimaginable effects on the snake-handling congregation of the Holiness Way Church of the Living God, located in rural Appalachia. Schenkkan is a Chapel Hill, NC native who won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for The Kentucky Cycle, an epic six-hour, nine-play drama that spans 200 years (1775-1975) and uses the lives of three eastern Kentucky families to make biting comments on the myths of the American past. It was the first Pulitzer awarded to a play that had not yet made its New York City premiere.
According to REP preshow publicity, dramatist Robert Schenkkan first became aware of the peculiar religious ritual at the core of Handler while researching The Kentucky Cycle: "[Schenkkan] encountered members of a Holiness congregation who practiced the handling of serpents, an 80-year-old practice that has been part of the religious experience for many believers living in the Appalachian hills in poor coal-mining communities. According to NPR [National Public Radio], there are some estimates suggesting as many as several thousand snake handlers continue to practice today, despite the fact that snake handling has been outlawed in all but two Southern states. It is the unwavering faith and religious ecstasy of these handlers that fuels Schenkkan's Handler.
"More importantly, though, Handler is a powerful and harrowing tale of forgiveness, redemption, and love," claims REP's preshow publicity. "Additionally, the play confronts the audience member with an incredibly provocative question: What is a miracle? REP embraces this and other challenging aspects of the play by allowing the events to unfold in the most intimate setting possible for both actors and audience. Patrons will experience the action seated on benches in a thrust or three-sided performance arrangement. As the story moves from the sanctuary of the Holiness Way Church of the Living God to the Appalachian wilderness, audience members will find themselves swept through the fear, doubt and, ultimately, hope that defines the human experience.
The current REP presentation of Handler is only the fifth full production of the play nationwide, claims Raleigh Ensemble Players artistic director C. Glen Matthews in an interview with Robert's Reviews.
"We have friends around the country who keep an eye out for material that might be a good fit for REP," says Matthews. "Jason Armit, a professional actor and fight choreographer in Atlanta, was hired to work on the original production of the script at Actor's Express a couple of years ago. Schenkkan was a part of the production process, and Armit was able to sneak me a copy of the script and the rewrites…. He felt like it was the perfect piece for us.
"Our artistic committee loved it," Matthews explains, "but when we inquired about rights, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival had just arranged for World Premiere Rights for a year. We kept the show in mind and were able to secure the show for this season."
During Handler, Matthews says, "Brother Bob [David Dossey] and the snake-handling congregation of the Holiness Way Church are rattled to their core when the unimaginable happens. What would you do with a miracle if given one?"
"I love the journey of the play's protagonist, Terri [Canady Vance-Tanguis] … her search for answers to those things she doesn't understand and her discovery of personal faith," Glen Matthews confesses. "It's a journey to which each of us can relate.
"I was raised in a Southern Baptist Church in south Mississippi," Matthews says, "so this play serves as reminder of all that is beautiful about organized religion and all that is not so beautiful. I think there comes a point in our lives when we finally get the courage to ask ourselves what we truly believe and why we believe. It's at that point that our personal faith is born. It's at that point that we become aware of the many miracles that surround us.
"Finally, the play is challenging — intellectually, structurally, emotionally, and technically," says Matthews. "It has demanded a great deal of us as a company and as artists... and it continues REP's long tradition of taking risks with material, with the use of space, with the way in which we tell our stories."
Besides David Dossey and Canady Vance-Tanguis, the cast of Handler includes Joseph Brack, Thaddaeus Edwards, Kirsten Ehlert, Sam Fuchs, John Honeycutt, Rowena Johnson, Kristin Killmer, Rhea Lidowski, Kelly Lowery, Soumya Natarjan, Christine Rogers, Zach Thomas, and Brett Wilson.
In addition to director Glen Matthews, the show's production team includes set designer Jennifer Baker, lighting designer Thomas Mauney, costume designer Joseph Brack, sound designer Heather Willcox, musical director Rus Hames, and special effects/design assistant Miyuki Su. Matthews says, "Members of the Cadillac Stepbacks [Trent Boutz, Nathan Golub, and Jason Hedrick], along with musical director Rus Hames, provide live gospel and blue grass music/underscoring throughout the piece."
Matthews adds, "The script is episodic, almost cinematic, in nature. It also takes chronological time and merges it with the psychological time of the protagonist. As a result, our greatest challenge was finding the best way to connect all of the dots in a visual and physical manner given the space with which we have to work. Additionally, the script calls for a large number of actors. Add four musicians to the mix and, suddenly, we're trying to find a location in Gallery 2 for the audience.
"All of these variables (as well as the aforementioned challenges) played a huge role in the development of our production approach," Matthews says. We chose early on in the process to create and embrace a metaphor or controlling image for the production... a phrase or statement that actively speaks to the themes of the play: 'shedding the skin of Belief to unearth Faith.' This statement served us as a unifier and a home base — something to come back to when we felt ourselves straying or losing focus. It provided a foundation for the designers on which they were able to develop and build their designs. It guided our decisions surrounding how the action manifests itself in the space, how we move through the story, and how we treat the relationship between actor and audience."
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Handler Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 16-18, at 8 p.m.; Wednesday-Saturday, Oct. 22-25 and Oct. 29-Nov. 1, at 8 p.m.; and Oct. 26, at 3 p.m. in Artspace Gallery 2, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($10 students with ID and $12 military personnel and seniors 60+). 919/832-9607, TTY: 919/835-0624, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.realtheatre.org/HANDLERreservation.htm. http://www.realtheatre.org/pages/2004/shows/handler2004two.htm. Note 1: The Oct. 18 show will be a special $25 fundraiser performance followed by a reception. Note 2: The Oct. 22 show will be a pay-what-you-can performance, with a $5 suggested minimum. Note 3: The Oct. 24 show will be a fully accessible performance — sign-language interpreted and audio described — with a tactile touch tour at 7 p.m. and large-print and Braille programs.