Eighteen-year-old Dezi Gallegos is on a spiritual quest. Raised without religion, the Petaluma teenager found himself grappling with the idea of plague, both in the literal sense of the serious ailments afflicting his family but also in the broader sense of why terrible, senseless things happen to good people. That sent him on a search for God, or at least to interview various people from various different religions to better understand how faith works for them, and try their ideas on for size.
That’s the premise of God Fights the Plague, Gallegos’ one-man show at The Marsh’s upstairs Studio Theater, a play he wrote when he was 17 and has been polishing with director Charlie Varon over the course of the last year. (Varon is a veteran solo performer in his own right with two other shows rotating right now downstairs on the Marsh’s main stage: his own monologue Feisty Old Jew and Dan Hoyle’s latest one-man show Each and Every Thing, which Varon directed.) In fact, Gallegos is already an accomplished theater artist, having co-written and assistant directed Walking Elephant Theatre Company’s interview-based touring show Prop 8 Love Stories when he was only 14.
Using similar documentary theater techniques, Gallegos embodies 10 different people from different religious backgrounds in the course of the play, using verbatim excerpts from his interviews with them. (He mentions in the performance that he interviewed 16 people, but I guess six of them didn’t make the cut.)
Five wooden chairs of different designs sit in a semicircle on the stage, and Gallegos moves from one to another, transforming himself from one character to another through different mannerisms, voices, accents and occasional accessories such as a shawl, a yarmulke, or an askew pair of glasses. He shifts genders, ages and ethnicities skillfully without a hint of parody.
It’s a diverse bunch: Dezi’s loving but uncompromising fundamentalist Christian friend; the ultra-confident California State Director of American Atheists; an anything-goes pagan witch who worships Elvis; a Hindu from whom we don’t hear much; an atheist who considers her fire-and-brimstone Christian upbringing to be child abuse; a jovial world leader in Qigong; a born-again Christian street preacher who was converted by a fellow passenger’s story on a bus ride; a serene Buddhist; an ex-military Muslim; and a thoughtful rabbi who’s also a singing drag queen in the band The Kinsey Sicks.
Their names appear projected on a screen behind Gallegos as he plays each character, with their religious affiliations appearing as they become relevant to the story each is telling. About halfway through the show we start hearing Gallegos’ questions occasionally in voiceover, which is a little jarring, but that’s really the only element that breaks the flow of what’s otherwise a deftly crafted narrative delivered by a compelling and assured performer.
What unites the characters is contemplative serenity and gentle tolerance that draws the listener in and may make you nod in agreement with people whose beliefs you do not share. It’s telling that when Gallegos asks some of them if their belief system is the one true one, a few diligently avoid any such proclamations, but his fundamentalist friend simply says, “Yes.” All describe how their philosophies comfort them in such deep and winning terms that it’s easy to understand why Gallegos says that he tries to fully believe what they believe for the duration of their conversation. He’s trying religions on for size, sure, but they also just sound so darned reasonable.
But it’s the character of Gallegos himself that ties the story together and remains at its heart throughout. His awkward attempts to pray are funny and deeply touching, especially the more we understand that this isn’t just some research project for him. Although stable at the moment, the “plagues” his mother and brother live with could always worsen, and Dezi himself is suffering from some mysterious illness that’s making him “lose his foods,” making his throat tighten after eating an ever-increasing number of things he used to be able to consume comfortably. His fear and anger are no joke, but neither are the various wise ways of putting his situation into perspective that his interviewees introduce and that he tries to take comfort from. It’s a profoundly personal journey, but it’s one that can’t help but resonate no matter how deeply set your own beliefs may be.
God Fights the Plague runs through August 10, 2014 at the Marsh in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit themarsh.org.