REVIEW: Homo Pentecostus by Joel Bray, Peter Paltos & Emma Valente – Malthouse

Joel welcomes us into the theatre, offering us a drink from the trestle table just inside the entrance. It’s a selection of Lipton teas and International Roast and it sets the mood immediately.

As we take our seats, we’re in the meeting room of a church hall. Heavy-duty carpets and vertical drapes and stacks of white, plastic chairs. If the offer of a hot beverage wasn’t enough, Kate Davis’ set puts us – the congregation – in that space. Called together and packed tight.

As the audience files in and finds their seats, Peter is on all fours, cleaning the carpet with a hand vac that’s not really up to the job. Peter’s having fun with it though, shaking his arse and crawling around – stretching provocatively, lunging under the chairs and the overhead projector.

Welcome to the church that changed both of these men in vastly different ways. The church of Scott Morrison and Hillsong and singing and speaking in tongues and one of the lessons that rang in Joel and Peter’s ears – homosexuality is paedophilia.

Homo Pentecostus indeed.

Creators and performers Joel Bray and Peter Paltos have worked hand-in-hand with director Emma Valente to create a piece that you might describe as confessional – except that feels like a kind of judgement, layered in by the guilt of churches everywhere. This is two performers with lived experience of the Pentecostal Church being honest about how it factored into their lives and how it continues its hold over them in various healthy and harmful ways.

The audience is invited to stand and raise their hands and sing Cher’s 1998 hit Believe because the lyrics seem vaguely spiritual and she’s a gay icon. Peter once dressed as her for Halloween, after all.

And then we’re treated to a kaleidoscope of music and dance and stories of coming out and queerness and how this particular religion is a deep mark, a wound in their family histories. Joel, a First Nations performer, talks about how Christianity and settler colonialism destroyed sacred sites of his people. Peter, of Egyptian and Armenian background, wrestles with the comfort he still feels with God – while reflecting on the genocide in his grandfather’s homeland.

There is some deep pain in this show that erupts in surprising ways, though both men still find absurd humour in the way their lives unfolded. And the combination of their spirituality and homosexuality isn’t as in conflict as you might first think.

Joel Bray’s choreography is as open and telling as any of the rants he has about losing his connection to country and the divine. At moments, his movements are lithe and alluring and then they are spiky and erratic; explosions of dance both heart-pounding and heart-breaking.

Peter Paltos’ presence is always striking, but beyond his physicality, his façade drops to reveal moments of great aching and vulnerability. He’s in fine form and can command our attention even with the smallest of gestures and looks. Or when he’s ranting through a list of sins most of us are guilty of committing.

Emma Valente’s direction is, as always, very precise. An almost clean and clear space turns into rows of those plastic chairs that later transform into a rocky landscape and then a bonfire to worship and for Joel and Peter to warm themselves by. It’s sparse and then it’s difficult terrain and then, somehow, we find comfort there.

It’s impossible not to think of the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza and ethnic cleansing in Sudan when watching Homo Pentecostus, because genocide is part of the text. Because it’s part of Joel and Peter’s family stories. It’s part of the history of so-called Australia. 

But the conversation this show wants us to have is not just right for this moment, it’s a conversation we should have had long ago. Organised religion can be used to bulldoze history, to tear up sacred sites, to destroy queer lives and to justify the most appalling acts of cruelty.

But dismissing religion and spirituality and the divine is both too easy and impossible. Homo Pentecostus is about our fraught relationship with what has come before and how we use that to create a future for ourselves and others. As well as the dangers of trying to wipe away the traumas that inform us and build us.

There are moments in this show that touched me, moments that shook me and moments that sing and dance and shout so loudly, the show leaps from the stage and becomes sublime.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Homo Pentecostus is on at the Malthouse until May 25th