As fresh as indie auteur Hal Hartley’s early films have been, “Soon,” his first foray into legit, seems positively sophomoric by comparison. With its weighty statements about religion, society and the apocalypse, Hartley’s play is likely to stir lively debate. It certainly did so at its world premiere at Salzburg’s esteemed festival, drawing a mixture of whistles and boos usually reserved for opera performances.
Hartley calls the piece a musical play, though that’s a far-from-accurate description of the production witnessed. It’s more a staged concert of words with minimalist mood music. The seven cast members (never identified by character names) speak into four hand-held microphones, creating an eerily detached sound that in fact is probably just right for making biblical pronouncements about judgment day, such as the one that opens the play.
Advance press and the director’s program notes draw a connection with the 1993 shootout at Waco, Texas, between the FBI and the Branch Davidians. But that event is merely a starting point for Hartley.
The neo-Amish-clad cast members, all of them veterans of Hartley films, are a generic group of religious seekers enthralled by the conundrums of the Book of Revelations. Through contortionist mathematics, they determine that the apocalypse is due not just “soon,” but now.
Various characters emerge as prophets and leaders, most notably Thomas Jay Ryan (recently seen as the title character in Hartley’s latest film, “Henry Fool”), who brings a rare burst of fiery dramatics to the stage as a charismatic warrior-preacher. He passes the mantle to Elina Loewensohn, a reluctant prophetess with a jealous streak. She sets her sights on cult newcomer David Neumann, who declares himself uniquely capable of unlocking the mysteries of the book with Seven Seals that sits at God’s right hand.
The cult’s eventual annihilation is accompanied by the effective refrain, woven throughout the script, “See how I burn for my love.” Finally it carries a literal interpretation.
“Soon” draws its influences from medieval mystery cycle plays, while its dialogue fluctuates between self-conscious blank-verse poetry and bare-bones plot jumps. It comes as a surprise when one character announces she’s having the prophet’s baby, or when another says the group has killed a few government agents.
An ambiguous tone that wavers between sincerity and mockery feels uncomfortably out of place here. “Soon” is unable to capture the tart flavor so welcome in Hartley’s films.
The opening performance was victim to unfortunate extraneous events. A rather voluble thunderstorm was easily heard in the converted warehouse serving as a theater, punctuating the piece (not always happily) with bolts from the heavens. And a festival oversight left some two dozen critics stranded far from the theater, delaying the opening by 20 minutes and leaving some of the audience feeling antagonistic even before the lights dimmed.