DF Reviews The Matter of Frank Schaefer (Curio Theatre, November 2014)

Frank SchaeferThe facts are fairly simple – “frocked, defrocked, refrocked!” might headline an article about Frank Schaefer, a Methodist minister in Eastern Pennsylvania. But, as they say, God is in the details, and they come to life in Curio’s docudrama, an imperfect but heartfelt and touching exploration of a real life local incident with a global message.

In 2013, Schaefer was the defendant in a church trial based on a complaint from a parishioner – that the minister had defied church doctrine by presiding over the same-sex marriage of his son, Tim. It probably seemed an uncomplicated case – Schaefer never denied having performed the ceremony – but there were questions. In fact, the marriage had taken place quite a while before, and the motivation for bringing the charge was unclear. More important, the doctrine itself was (as so many ecclesiastic matters) open to interpretation. How can a church prohibit equal treatment when they also preach inclusion?

A group of artists from Curio Theatre followed the story, interviewing Schaefer and others, and also compiling data from the trial transcript. Paul Kuhn, in an appealing performance, plays Schaefer; five additional actors portray the many supporting characters. The theatre space, housed within a Mennonite church, is exceptionally apt for this play.

The Matter of Frank Schaefer is reminiscent of works by Anna Deavere Smith, or The Laramie Project – part investigative journalism, part theatrical reenactment. Those pieces took on already famous incidents, aflame with controversy. The Schaefer case is smaller, and so is Curio’s frame – mostly they stick to the trial and its aftermath. For most of us, the “right side” here is a no-brainer, and it’s clear from the start where the writer/performers’ allegiances lie. Still, to their credit, they at least gesture at presenting both sides, as they include the despairing testimony of the original complainant, who feels deserted in his faith.

Schaefer’s story could hardly be more current – in fact, its happy final outcome, which upholds his reinstatement, occurred less than a month ago! Perhaps this is one reason the production’s final sequence feels rushed. There is some bumpiness throughout, and (at the opening) some of it looked under-rehearsed. By traditional theatrical standards, The Matter is not as sleek as Laramie.

But I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. For me, The Matter of Frank Schaefer has something more important going for it. It’s a community effort and clearly a labor of love. Ultimately, that shines more powerfully than anything else.

Through December 6, Curio Theatre Co., 4740 Baltimore Ave., (215) 525-1350, http://www.curiotheatre.org

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