Film director Hal Hartley ("Henry Fool," "Trust") turned his attention to the stage in 1998, writing this theater piece, inspired by the 1993 Waco confrontation between the Branch Davidians and the U.S. government, for the Salzburg Festival. "Soon" is more intriguing than it is entertaining or moving, with a thoughtfulness that never takes dramatic form.
Film director Hal Hartley (“Henry Fool,” “Trust”) turned his attention to the stage in 1998, writing this theater piece, inspired by the 1993 Waco confrontation between the Branch Davidians and the U.S. government, for the Salzburg Festival. Receiving its American premiere as part of the Eclectic Orange Festival in Orange County, “Soon” is more intriguing than it is entertaining or moving, with a potent, involving thoughtfulness that never quite takes dramatic form.
The piece is a hybrid of movement and theater, heavily scored to synthesizer strains by Hartley in collaboration with Jim Coleman; “Soon” emerged, in fact, following an opera commission. The three female and four male performers fill out an empty, square playing space — there’s only a Bible and a stool — with microphones (attached to four-foot metal poles) handed from person to person. The movement punctuates the religious debates over the meaning of biblical passages.
The piece’s most insightful moments stem from taking an uncompromisingly subjective view of the proceedings. This is the Waco story told from the followers’ point of view, an ambitious effort to understand the Christian fundamentalist mind and how it came into conflict with the law. The piece’s most alarming, funniest and revealing turn comes when the leader, here referred to as the Prophet, decides that to fulfill the biblical commandments, he needs to sleep with the under-age girls in the community. Hartley has prepared the way so that this kind of logic makes a perverse sense.
“Soon” is also uncompromising in the abstraction of its presentation. The figures here are never quite full-fledged characters but spokespeople for a viewpoint. While this approach is perhaps Hartley’s way of acknowledging that he can only enter into this world so far, it does limit the force of the piece, keeping it more a contemplation on events than a confrontation. The choreography becomes repetitive rather than expressive, and even the music takes on a numbing effect. There’s strong writing here, and it would certainly be nice to see Hartley explore the theatrical medium further. But in this effort, content and form never quite merge.