Second Thought’s ‘Martyr’ presents a modern-day ‘Crucible’ of extremism


ZEALOT | Ben’s (Garret Storms) religious fanaticism masks unease about his sexuality, while Georg (Ruben Carranzana) pursues his man-crush in ‘Martyr.’ (Photo by Karen Almond)

Executive Editor

Ben (Garret Storms) is a fairly typical high school kid: Moody, disrespectful to his mom, awkward, probably a C+ student. One day, he refuses to disrobe for swim class, and starts quoting Bible verses, though he’s never shown any interest in religion before. His mom (Lulu Ward) and teachers (Allison Pistorius, Andrews W. Cope) are concerned, but hope it’s just a phase. But Ben’s fundamentalism mounts; he’s proselytizing to a disabled classmate (Ruben Carranzana) who clings to Ben’s promises of faith healing with puppy-dog loyalty. Ben begins to see himself as some kind of messianic figure. And we all know how productive religious fervor is.

Screen shot 2016-01-20 at 4.39.07 PMMartyr, the season-opener from perpetually provocative Second Thought Theatre, is sort of a modern-day take on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible: How desperate are we to trust in people’s humanity that we can’t see their flaws — their evils — when confronted directly with them? It’s a portrait of Christian fanaticism taken to its logically extremist ends; if only it felt more satiric and less journalistic.

German playwright Marius von Mayenburg’s 2012 play (here in a 2015 translation by Maja Zade) feels contemporary and relevant but also expressionistic: A sparse set, with characters who tend to wear their archetype-ness broadly: A priest (Paul Taylor) who seems to encourage Ben’s zealotry while exploiting his mother; a headmaster (Thomas Ward) who huffs indignantly at “scandalous” teaching methods (sex ed! evolution science!) while lasciviously hitting on his female staff; a tiger mom who defends her son blindly while ignoring his clear signs of being a sociopath. These all come together in a perfect storm of witch hunting and blame-gamesmanship, where someone has to be at fault. And it can’t be the kid or religion, because, well, God.

Storms — with his wispy teen peach fuzz and gangly discomfort with his own body — carries the heaviest load, portraying a character who is both pitiable and loathsome, but also opaque. Von Mayenburg doesn’t answer a lot of questions here. There is a suggestion that Ben’s crush on a flirtatious female classmate (Mikaela Krantz) is misdirected same-sex longing (the old “the most homophobic person in the room is secretly gay” trope), but while he’s clearly sexually confused, we never fully know the source of his radical devotion. We just see how destructive it is.

And while not set in the U.S. per se, it’s impossible to watch Martyr and not consider how eerily close Ben’s rantings come to Mike Huckabee/Ted Cruz stump speeches, or how the demonization of free thinking mirrors the Texas ban on schoolbooks with actual learning in them. Director Blake Hackler subtlely but persuasively reminds us that martyrdom is the a ultimate distraction from rational thought … which is exactly why it’s so dangerous to an enlightened society.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 22, 2016.