Press for The Gospel According to Matthew
nytheatre.com - review
The Gospel According
If only we could all articulate the circumstances of a life-defining journey so clearly as Matthew Francis. If only we were all so compassionate and caring, capable of such patience and introspection. As it is, in a city as notoriously harsh as New York, The Gospel According to Matthew stands as a touchstone, as evidence that it is possible for the seemingly irreconcilable forces of Fundamentalist Christianity and homosexuality to exist, lovingly if not cozily, in the same life.
A clear disciple of Anna Deavere Smith, under whom he studied extensively, Francis takes her techniques of docudrama a step closer to home, using them to investigate his own struggles with morality, identity, and community. It goes something like this: During his freshman year of college, Francis has a Born Again experience and becomes very active in the Fundamentalist community, but as he embraces his spiritual awakening, he finds himself unable to deny his homosexual thoughts and feelings. The Gospel According to Matthew follows Francis as he works to expel the "demon" living inside him and eventually learns to accept himself exactly as, ironically, God made him.
But this is docudrama, and the bulk of the play consists of monologues taken verbatim from interviews conducted by Francis from 1996-2004 with leaders of and participants in gay and Christian organizations. In Smith's proven effective style, Francis embodies each of these people through their own mannerisms and vocal inflections. There is no mimicry or send-up here, just the utmost respect and curiosity. Francis went to these people hoping to gain clarity about his own predicament, making a play that could very easily be about the actor's tour de force performances (though Francis is formidably skilled) instead a humble discourse on the definition of self.
That does not mean, however, that the ride Francis takes his audience on is a solemn one. Quite the contrary. Because all of the characters are in fact living, breathing human beings, Francis, to his credit, keeps them appropriately three-dimensional and complex. During the show I saw, the audience was having such a good time that, given the opportunity to briefly interact with Francis, they didn't want to stop.
The play has its chilling moments as well, notably when Francis is overwhelmed and can no longer suppress his homosexuality, a struggle that manifests itself as a literal encounter with Satan. It is also never easy to hear the blunt bigotry of Rev. Fred Phelps (of GodHatesFags.com fame).
Francis is not out to convert or convince, thankfully. He offers no universal answers, just a continuation of a long-standing, in-depth discussion. Actually, the only story that gets short shrift in The Gospel According to Matthew is his own. Francis's personal journey is so compelling that when he reconciles his sexuality with his religion, I was too invested in his struggle to not want more details. All the same, Francis brings camaraderie, intelligence, and humor to this hotly contested topic and we would be wise to follow his example.
offoffonline.com - review
The Gospel According
ACT OF FAITH - The Gospel According to Matthew, written and performed by Matthew Francis, probes fundamentalist Christianity’s approach to homosexuality on both a philosophical and a personal level.
Francis melds autobiographical storytelling with documentary theater to produce a compassionate examination of the topic –- and a compelling theatrical work.
In an hour and 40 minutes, this impressive production, adeptly directed by David Drake, distills eight years of Francis’ interviews with prominent religious and intellectual figures (Rev. Fred Phelps, founder of www.GodHatesFags.com; Rev. Mel White; Rene Girard), gays, evangelicals, gay people who once identified as fundamentalist, fundamentalist who once identified as gay, and more. Francis’ quiet ease embodying each character belies the ambitiousness of such an undertaking.
Francis studied extensively under Anna Deavere Smith, whose ground-breaking solo shows blurred the lines between theater and journalism, and it shows. His portrayals are expertly executed, never veering toward broad caricature or vague abstraction. Like Smith, Francis uses simple costume pieces (a sports jacket, eyeglasses, a do-rag) to visually denote each character and seamlessly transition between them.
Francis proves equally deft at relaying his personal history as a gay man who once aspired to become a leader of fundamentalism. Sharing his own stories – and they are heart-achingly good – allows space for Francis to develop a rapport with his audience and humanizes what might otherwise be a stark presentation of frequently unpalatable opinions.
A recurring theme in the production holds that in Christianity, speaking is an act of faith. By giving voice to diverse –- and divisive –- ideas, The Gospel According to Matthew embodies that ideal. Speaking as an act of faith also describes Francis’ style of performance, in which listening likewise functions as an act of faith. Audiences of Francis’ storytelling will find their faith aptly placed.
Backstage.com - review
The Gospel According
You can count on one hand the number of interesting plays about theology (Jumpers, of course, and, uh…), but Matthew Francis increases the number by one with The Gospel According to Matthew. Francis' experiences as a gay charismatic Christian struggling with his sexual identity have generated both incisive monologues from his own perspective and a series of profound and profoundly disturbing interviews with everyone from fire-breathing anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps (www.godhatesfags.com) to gay Christian activist Mel White (www.soulforce.org).
The 90-minute show rivetingly recounts the damage done to a male recipient of "ex-gay" therapy, a lesbian's decision to abandon her lover in the hope of starting a family in a heterosexual marriage, and Francis' own coming to terms.
Francis' take on Christianity is understandably skewed, but the material offers a great deal to interest conservatives, including straightforward recitals demonstrating exactly how they sound. What really sells the show, however, is Francis' deep sincerity as both a Christian and a gay man, as well as his willingness to ask rhetorical and unanswerable questions.
CurtainUp.com - review
The Gospel According
From the title of this surprisingly compelling one-act you might be expecting a Sunday school historical dramatization of the millennia-old scripture. Fortunately you'll be pleasantly surprised. The gospel-or good news-according to performer Matthew Francis is that there is experience beyond the dusty stories and morals of childhood. With a sleek and fine-tuned production, Francis spins a well-crafted tale of spiritual struggles between two very different perspectives on sexuality and lifestyle in contemporary America. Francis became a born-again Christian in college but then found this doctrine coming into conflict with his "homosexual dreams and fantasies," as he describes it to his spiritual mentor in college. His struggle takes him through both various "ex-gay" ministries, and "open and affirming" Christian churches who support homosexuality. Balancing various voices through careful juxtaposition-which still favors one side, after all this is New York and not Nebraska-Francis tells the story in all its present turmoil, as filtered through his experience. The material is presented verbatim, allowing each voice to come through-a technique which keeps the audience engaged throughout the 90-minute one-act. Francis keeps on tirelessly, working for each laugh. If it's a little over the top, so much the better; it's done with a finesse that keeps it more amusing than annoying. Francis' ease with the audience is particularly enjoyable: He engaged in an improvised dialogue about the fourth wall during an audience participation scene when the audience got a little presumptuous. The ending is a bit abrupt and leaves a few too many questions but perhaps that's fitting for a play about issues with no easy solutions.
Time Out New York - review
The Gospel According
**** [FOUR STARS] This autobiographical, multicharacter one-man show about the relationship between homosexuality and charismatic Christianity could easily have been 90 very tedious minutes of preaching to the converted. After all, when the program tells us that one of the characters is notorious antigay hatemonger Fred Phelps, it’s not hard to predict where things are going and how we’re supposed to feel. But likable writer-performer Matthew Francis is more interested in exploring his topics' gray areas than in dismissing or condemning his subjects, and his portrayals of various clergymen, psychiatrists, ex-gays and other controversial figures are thoughtful and mostly sympathetic. (The text is taken directly from interviews that Francis conducted over the course of eight years.) A few of the monologues go on a little longer than they need to, and an audience-participation segment seems poorly planned, but these minor distractions hardly diminish the power of this provocative, funny and moving work.
- Ethan LaCroix, TimeOut, Managing Editor
The New Yorker - feature
The Gospel According
Critics Notebook - Outsider Art
...Among the more eye-popping pieces is Matthew Francis's The Gospel According to Matthew, at the SoHo Playhouse. Starring the author as himself, the play claims to be about Francis's love of Jesus and other men--which may strike you as a contradiction at first, but it makes a kind of sense, if you consider love a religion.
Backstage - feature
The Gospel According
Breakout Talents Feature - Matthew Francis
Matthew Francis, who plays 20 characters on both sides of what he calls "the Christian right/homosexual divide," says his autobiographical solo show, The Gospel According to Matthew, represents an attempt to reconcile those parts of himself that are at odds. The play recounts his journey "from faith to disillusionment to reconciliation," he says, "to both find God and accept my homosexuality."
It also has elements of docudrama, as most of the characters are based on interviews Francis conducted. They are performed verbatim in the tradition of Anna Deavere Smith, with whom he has studied and worked. "I love the discipline of her acting approach," he says. "It's listening and listening and then dissecting every pause and getting every rhythm into my body as a way of getting into character."
The 34-year-old Ohio native, who graduated from Stanford University and has an MFA in acting from the Institute for Advanced Theatre Training at Harvard University, boasts a number of impressive theatre credits, including two and a half years with the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. He suggests that The Gospel According to Matthew, which is directed by David Drake (who wrote and performed the Off-Broadway hit The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me), represents a new genre combining autobiography and journalism. While some distortion is inevitable, he says, "my goal-and responsibility to those I've interviewed-is to represent the people I've interviewed as accurately as possible. Some of them will actually be in the audience. At the same time, each of those people has to reflect a real voice in my head."
- By Simi Horwith, Backstage, Breakout Talents, August 16-22, 2007
Playbill - feature
The Gospel According
The Gospel According to Matthew Will Make World Premiere at NY Fringe
The New York Fringe Festival will Host Matthew Francis' one-man show, The Gospel According to Matthew, Aug. 12-24.
Developed over 12 years, Francis utilized personal experiences, anecdotes and the interview, research and performance techniques of mentor Anna Deavere Smith to create The Gospel According to Matthew. Francis has previously workshopped the production at Virginia Tech last year and presented readings at Manhattan Theatre Club and New York Theatre Workshop. The Fringe mounting marks the world premiere full production.
Press notes state, "Matthew gives his testimony and performs verbatim stories of sinners, teachers, and preachers. Sometimes cathartic, always provocative, this one-man play will inspire and transform the conversation between the Christian Fundamentalist and gay communities. Francis brings to life over 20 characters - from Fred Phelps, the founder of Gothatesfags.com, to Mel White, the former right-hand to Jerry Falwell who is now a gay activist.
David Drake, playwright/performer and Obie winner for The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, directs the production for the Fringe Festival.
nytheatre.com - feature
The Gospel According
FringeNYC Preview - The Gospel According to Matthew
My one-man show, The Gospel According to Matthew, is both my story of sexual awakening from within Christian fundamentalism and my performance of interviews I have conducted over the last 12 years on both sides of the Christian/homosexual divide. I tell of my belief that I was possessed with a homosexual demon and perform over 20 character - from Fred Phelps, the founder of Godhatesfags.com, to Mel White, the former right-hand to Jerry Falwell who is now a gay activist. It is the first time an autobiographical story-telling in the style of Spalding Gray has been combined with docudrama in the style of Anna Deavere Smith (both Spalding and Anna were my teachers) to create my very own genre of "docu-Matthew-graphy."
I am a gay man who was part of the fastest-growing religious group in the United State - a group that calls "homosexual behavior" a sin. In a time when the debate over gay marriage is raging, Bush's nominee for Surgeon General is a professed Christian who wrote a report calling male homosexuality "unnatural," and the army's top general is calling gay sex "immoral," gay sex and religion seem to be on everyone's minds. This play is about my struggle to live in two supposedly irreconcilable places: to love Jesus and at the same time accept myself.
I chose to present this show because Oprah says we should share our struggles in the hopes that someone out there listening might be helped! Seriously, there was a time when I could not see my way out of this struggle, and I hope by telling this story and repeating the words of these people, someone out there won't feel like they are completely alone. The gospel means "good news." Why do so many people make it feel so bad? And really, in the end, what would Jesus do?
- Matthew Francis, nytheatre.com, July 2007
Gay City News - feature
The Gospel According
Disparate Acts (featuring Director David Drake)
The New York Fringe Festival has slimmed down a bit, from a whopping 220 shows last year to 188. And some say it's not a moment too soon. Founded by the Present Company in 1996 as a theatrical breeding ground for boundary-bending work from troupes across America and beyond, the festival soon mushroomed into a mammoth event. Detractors argue that it's still too large for its own good, having lost sight of its original mission.
This summer, an anti-Fringe festival has sprouted, called Phuck the Phringe, claiming FringeNYC is elitist and screws its artists financially. According to their snarky press release: "The Fringe Festival has become a bloated corporate beastfeeding [sic] on young artists, gnawing on their bones, drinking their blood, and pooping out some of the worst plays ever seen."
So, do they have a point, or are they simply malcontents trying to piggyback on Fringe's fame?
"There's always somebody who's trying to be the fringe of the Fringe, and that's fine," said Elena K. Holy, co-founder and producing artistic director of FringeNYC. "Maybe they didn't get accepted to our festival."
Holy admits their application fee increased to $550 this year. And, yes, they do take a one-third cut of each $15 ticket sold. But she contends that, unlike most festivals, the Fringe covers rental costs of top-notch theater spaces, marketing support, printed program guides, and liability insurance for the artists and audience, which skyrocketed after 9/11. These necessities would otherwise set artists back thousands of dollars. "It's the cheapest way to produce in New York," she asserted. "We are taking a risk because we believe in them."
Holy made a conscious decision to reign in the festival this year, to focus more personal attention on the participants. She strives for plenitude, while ensuring shows maintain that sassy Fringe attitude.
David Drake, best known for his hit solo show "The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me" is directing his third play at FringeNYC and sees both sides. "The Fringe had a tremendous, surprising success early on, especially with 'Urinetown,' which transferred to Broadway," said the out-and-proud actor director. "Suddenly they were on the map as a tryout for commercial hits. A wonderful thing, but if that is your goal, I say be careful, because it makes it difficult for the rest of us simply wanting to do good work and be part of the celebration. They've been negotiating that [balance] ever since."
Besides Phuck the Phringe, a slew of other upstarts - such as SPF (Summer Play Festival), Frigid Festival, River to River Festival, Gayfest NYC, the Howl! Festival, and the National Asian American Theater Festival - have created a kind of festival mania in the city in recent summers.
How does Holy feel about her rivals?
"I don't see them as competition," she said flatly. "When the New York Music Theater Festival launched, they came to us and asked our advice, and we were happy to help. They carved out a niche for themselves. Festivals offer many different opportunities for artists and get more people to see more theater. We weren't the first festival in town, either."
Holy added that having an abundance of fests is common in Europe, which has a much stronger performance festival heritage. "I think there should be a ban on new festivals," joked Ron Lasko, longtime promoter of FringeNYC. "New York is on festival overload. But it's no surprise, really - staging a show here independently is so darn expensive."
While diversity is the hallmark of FringeNYC, this year's dominant trends are sexuality and religion - nearly one-quarter of the plays have a gay accent. The work that Drake is directing, "The Gospel According to Matthew" written and performed by Matthew Francis, handily melds both.
According to Drake, the 30-character solo show is a spiritual journey about the ideological clashes posed by religion, told from various points of view. The work uses a "journalistic monologue" technique perfected by Anna Deavere Smith that incorporates actual interviews.
"Doing them verbatim - with their mistakes, where they laugh, where they stumble - therein you find the conflict in the individual character, and their own poetry, in unexpected ways," he explained.
Drake is hardly surprised that these are the hot topics this year. "One of the last bastions that need queer activists' work is organized religion. We must revolutionize it in the same way that we've done in the arts, government, and fashion."
The daring dramaturg cherishes his tenure with FringeNYC, and believes it has made him a better director.
"I really learned about the power of economy - working with limitations of existing props, shared spaces and brutal budgets and schedules," he said. "I'm stripping away elements. How can I say this in as little time as possible, with minimal lighting or sound effects, and make it land the same way? I learned how to spend money very carefully."
This fall, two past Fringe faves, "Walmartopia" and "Silence! The Musical" (with wickedly appalling lyrics intact), are moving to Off-Broadway. Holy is thrilled because, unlike other transfers, they are being staged by the original Fringe producers.
"This is a great leap forward - they have the best chance of remaining true to their original spirit," she said. "My goal for our second decade is to find a path for shows to live after the festival that doesn't involve someone swooping in with a lot of money. And drastic changes." Drake agreed.
"The thing that's shitty for the artists - and it's no fault of Fringe organizers - is that often these actors, directors, and designers work so hard for nothing," he said. "Then a new producer comes in and hires a totally new team. The original people are left on the street with their suitcases and a bus ticket back to Cleveland."
- David Kennerley, gaycitynews.com, August, 10 2007
BroadwayWorld.com - feature
The Gospel According
The Gospel According to Matthew Begins at FringeNYC 8/12
Constyabul Productions is proud to present The Gospel According to Matthew, written by and starring Matthew Francis, as part of the 11th annual New York International Fringe Festival (FringeNYC). Under the direction of David Drake, Francis' revelatory 90-minutes show will play at off-Broadway's Soho Playhouse August 12-24.
Sunday, August 12 at 2:15PM
Friday, August 17 at 7PM
Sunday, August 19 at 10PM
Monday, August 20 at 3PM
Friday, August 24 at 5PM
In The Gospel According to Matthew, "Matthew gives his testimony and performs verbatim stories of sinners, teachers, and preachers. Sometimes cathartic, always provocative, this one-man play will inspire and transform the conversation between the Christian Fundamentalist and gay communities. Francis brings to life over 20 characters— from Fred Phelps to Mel White, the former right-hand to Jerry Falwell who is now a gay activist," as described in press notes.
Francis' show was developed over 12 years combining the interview, research and performance techniques of critically-acclaimed playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith, as well as anecdotes from his own fascinating life story, which together create a truly unique and moving theatrical event about coming out, Oprah and the love of Jesus. After receiving accolades for a workshop at Virginia Tech last year and subsequent readings at Manhattan Theatre Club and New York Theatre Workshop, Francis' play receives its world premiere at FringeNYC.
Francis explains: "My play, The Gospel According to Matthew, is both my story of sexual awakening from within Christian fundamentalism and my performance of interviews I have conducted over the last 12 years on both sides of the Christian/homosexual divide. This is the first time that autobiographical story telling in the style of Spalding Gray has been combined with docudrama in the style of Anna Deavere Smith. I'm creating my very own genre of 'docu-Matthew-graphy!'"
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