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“The war in heaven” premiers in Hermosa Beach [Theater Review]

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Playwright and actor Angelo Masino with actress Loree Sobrito. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski.

Playwright and actor Angelo Masino is the Archangel Michael and Loree Sobrito is Mary M in “The War in Heaven,” premiering Friday at the 2nd Story Theater in Hermosa Beach. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski.

by Roger F. Repohl

The first attempt was a failure. Two millennia ago, a virgin gave birth to a Baby who was destined to save the world. Two millennia later, the world is in even worse shape: global war, random shootings, environmental peril, economic inequality, and most ironically, the crimes against humanity by institutional religion.

What’s the God of Love to do?

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Try again.

That’s the premise of Angelo Michael Masino’s brilliant and challenging new play, “The War in Heaven,” premiering Friday at the Second Story Theatre in Hermosa Beach.

The play is both as serious, and not as serious, as the title suggests. Masino himself describes it as a “farce,” with plenty of ribald humor and many a table turned. But streaming through it is a sober consideration of the nature of good and evil and the redemptive power of love.

The scene throughout is an abandoned Catholic church in a dystopic America, plagued by food shortages and power blackouts. In the dark, a couple prognostically named Mary and Joseph make love among the ruins. Getting up, they light a lantern, revealing that Mary is Black. They discuss their plight: They want a child, but Mary is infertile. Joseph tells her that God will provide; Mary scoffs that she is an atheist. Basically, they’re ordinary people, having some fun in an unusual venue while waiting for Joseph’s dad Michael, who lives there, to arrive from his A.A. meeting. Little do they know what’s in store for them when he does.

Along with Michael, who has a huge sword strapped to his back, comes a man whom he identifies as Jesus Christ; he is disheveled and plainly drunk. When the miserable “Messiah” stumbles out, Michael defends him.“He’s been through a lot,” he tells them, but “Jesus and me, we figured it out.”

What they’d figured out was that to eliminate the horrendous evils in the physical world, a new war between the forces of good and evil must be waged in the spirit one — and Michael will go there to lead it, as he did of old.

This sensible couple think Dad’s got the D.T.’s, but gradually he persuades them that he is none other than the Archangel Michael, who will forsake his bodily form for a rematch with his rival Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness.

That’s when things get metaphysical. On to the stage come voluptuous Lilith, the demon of lust from Jewish mythology, tempting Michael to abandon his mission; the drunken Jesus, this time in the company of his Al-Anon girlfriend Mary M., bewailing his failed message (given his results over the centuries, wouldn’t you turn to drink too?); and Damien, the incarnate son of Lucifer, to deride Jesus and lure Michael to his side by rational argument. Michael resists them all, dons his sword, and ascends to meet his foe.

Through all this craziness, Mary and Joseph try to remain sensible, even when Jesus’ drinking-buddy the Archangel Gabriel, in the form of a garrulous East Indian straight out of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, appears and announces that Mary will bear the second Christ; after considering possible outcomes (“Will he be crucified?”) and rejecting an abortion, she relents and agrees. As the celestial battle rages unseen, very good things and very bad things occur, depending on who’s getting the upper hand above; and in the end, the winner is … — well, you’ll have to see the play and find out for yourself.

A clue, perhaps, may be found in the words of Lucifer to Michael during a truce in the battle: Goodness allows forgiveness, thus allowing evil to enter through the back door and spawn even greater evils: Nominally “good” people, the devil observes, “abuse each other under the name of God. Religions like the Roman Catholic Church and countries like America are mass murderers!” Because evil is “pure,” he says — never polluted by good — it “always wins.”

Throughout the play, even at its most farcical, Masino employs many ancient texts, not only from the Bible but from apocryphal sources, including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalen, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, deftly addressing the results of fallen human nature – racism, violence, addiction, greed — embedded in this work.

The cast perform their challenging, tragicomic roles uniformly well. Phyllis Wissa is splendid as the hard-headed, skeptical Mary, as is Michael Panarello as the brash, gun-toting Joseph (Panarello is a combat veteran and weapons instructor). The single-named Koushik is hilarious as the buffoonish Gabriel. William Goldman brings an ironic, fatherly authority to the character of Lucifer, and Dave Buzzotta is a sly and cynical Damien. It’s hard to play a drunken Jesus spouting Scripture, but Austen Michael Rey pulls it off, though perhaps not quite drunkenly enough. Loree Sobrito is both tough and compassionate as the devoted Mary M., and Yasemin Isil plays Lilith with an intoxicating sultriness. Most admirable of all is the playwright and director himself, Angelo Michael Masino, who plays the archangel with a passion that must come from a longtime friendship with his namesake. Tellingly, God never appears.

For a very new take on a very old question, see The War in Heaven. But leave your scruples at home.

THE WAR IN HEAVEN will be performed Feb. 19, 20, 26, 27, March 4, 11, 18, and 19, all shows at 8 p.m., at the Second Story Theatre, 710 Pier Avenue, Hermosa Beach. Mature audiences only. Tickets, $20. Call (310) 374-9767. For additional information, email angelvisionp@gmail.com.ER

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