Among the entities granted cult status in Steven Fales’ Cult Model are ISIS, Google, oxycontin, the Kardashians, Barack Obama, the Episcopal Church, pro sports, pro sports in Boston, the Southern Baptist Church, multi-level marketing schemes, Lady Gaga, the Freemasons, love and romance, apps, American Horror Story, the sex industry, the human trafficking industry, drug cartels, and — wait for it — Beyoncé.
Fales, a multitalented artist best known for his Mormon Boy Trilogy of solo plays, offers a loose conceptualization of cults befitting of his loose performative style. Cult Model is an amorphous thing, slipping fluidly (if sometimes inelegantly) from song to standup to in-character vignette. It has no narrative arc beyond that of performer and audience sharing an hour, though this is not necessarily to the show’s detriment. At times it is a beautiful thing. Cult Model is a work in progress — with his script on a music stand, Fales makes no effort to conceal this — and has the craggy atmosphere of a mind grappling with its past. Fales, an admitted victim of numerous cults beside his Mormon upbringing, has seen some shit. Now it’s our turn.
Perhaps the only drawback of the show’s hybrid TED talk/cabaret approach is the time it takes to arrive at said shit. The vast brunt of Cult Model seems frustratingly disinterested in its subject matter. “Cult,” Fales declares, “is the new four letter word,” though he neglects to explain what is new about a thing that has existed for millennia. Promising ideas are discarded almost as soon as they are introduced: there is a cult scale, he says, much like the Kinsey scale, on which the Episcopal Church is a 1 and ISIS is a 6. Shortly thereafter he asks audience members to call out the names of cults; for each one, he sheds an article of clothing. These are funny enough jokes, but as dramatic content they are neither deepened nor revisited. More often than not, they are simply excuses to launch into song. In such moments Cult Model’s lack of narrative is painfully tangible. Without clear stakes or dramatic tension, we are left to trust that Fales has some greater plan for us. Appropriately enough, this blind faith is never quite rewarded.
Fales shines when he abandons the presentational mode entirely and sinks into imagined characters. He embodies three cult victims over the course of the evening — the Heavenly Mother of Mormon doctrine, a Mormon Jew, and a sex worker about to leave the business. These monologues, which call to mind the work of Anna Deavere Smith, are alternatingly side-splitting and heartbreaking (Heavenly Mother: “Did you see The Devil Wears Prada? That was me.”). Most surprising is the final vignette, the sex worker’s, in which Fales scours his past to arrive finally at a complicated notion of cults: often, the people in them could not survive without them. It is an honest, bone-chilling admission, promptly followed by Fales’ rendition of Tina Turner’s Private Dancer. Ah well.
I suspect there is a reason most cults, from the Church of Scientology to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, rest on a bedrock of narrative: a body of stories that overwhelm believers with a kind of spiritual awe, a sense of something wholly beyond our understanding or control. I suspect there is a similar reason we go to the theatre and pretend, for one to twelve hours, that people are other people. Cult Model reaches its true potential when it stops trying to explain itself and turns instead to good, old-fashioned storytelling.