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Film Director Opens Stage Door

Theater: Hal Hartley trades irony for a serious look at cults in his first play, part of the Eclectic Orange Festival.


With "Soon," his first play, independent filmmaker Hal Hartley demands that we pay serious and respectful attention to religious fanatics who think the end of the world is at hand.

"I feel I am a satirist, for the most part, but this is one of the few pieces I've ever made that's not satire," Hartley says as darkness gathers over the patio bar of a hotel across the street from the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, where "Soon" is having its U.S. premiere this week in the annual Eclectic Orange Festival.

Hartley, who turns 42 on Saturday, is tall and thin, with a streak of hair falling carelessly over his forehead. The son of a Long Island, N.Y., ironworker, he has been known since the late 1980s for his minimalist style and understated directing approach. He won a best screenplay award at Cannes for his 1998 film, "Henry Fool."

"Soon" is inspired by and closely patterned after the saga of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, whose standoff against federal forces in 1993 ended in a conflagration that destroyed the group's compound in Waco, Texas, leaving 74 dead.

Hartley takes viewers inside a religious cult whose fate is sealed by its insistence that the apocalyptic vision of the biblical Book of Revelations is about to be fulfilled. The faithful argue about the meaning of arcane prophetic verses and agonize over whether their leader is God's chosen prophet. Then they become embroiled with the forces of the secular "Babylon" beyond their compound. The end does arrive, in flame and in blood, but its agents are the FBI and the ATF, not the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Hartley's play was commissioned by the Salzburg Festival, an opera showcase in Austria, and premiered there in 1998.

It isn't without humorous pokes at the faithful. At one point the Koresh figure, having taken the women in the compound as a baby-making harem, assures the other men that their enforced celibacy is for their own good. "I am forced to be a sinner," he tells them. "I am being sacrificed ... so that the rest of you can be free to devote yourselves to better things, to your salvation."

The jokes are deliberate, says Hartley, who went to Catholic schools through junior high but no longer considers himself a Christian. "But ultimately, the point is to show the outside world how similar [the cult members are] to us. These are not exotics. They want certainty. We all imagine having complete, strongly held, well-understood convictions that will give us rest. We just want to be at peace."

The crux of the play, he says, is to show what happens when a fervent search for certitude through religion runs afoul of secular law. In the second half of "Soon," Hartley's sympathies are clearly with his cultists, whom he casts as victims of a secular intolerance that is blind and unyielding in its own right.

"It's not a message piece, but just like any film I've made, I'd like people to come out asking questions and probably to presume less," he said. "That's always a good attitude to come out of a piece of art with. To see the world around you a little more clearly and be a bit more free from unchecked, uninvestigated prejudice."

Hartley says he was drawn to the Branch Davidians because they stood so radically against standard American consumer culture. "I've been investigating consumerism in my films for many years, poking it with a stick to see how it moves." He aims to give it a big poke with his next feature, "Nova," a science fiction film about "consumerism taken to its logical conclusion."

Writing plays held no interest for Hartley until Gerard Mortier, director of the Salzburg Festival, urged him to come up with a piece for the festival. Hartley says he was turned off in college after seeing too many plays steeped in naturalism and psychology. "I'm not a big follower of theater because I find it boring for the most part," he said.

His theatrical approach in "Soon" aims for the abstraction and sparseness that are hallmarks of his films. The play melds drama with dance and electronic music; much of the choreography involves a highly stylized passing to-and-fro of totemic microphones on stands; the seven actors speak all their lines into the microphones.

Dean Corey, executive director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, saw "Soon" at Salzburg. He knew nothing of Hartley's films but instantly decided that he wanted to stage the play in the Eclectic Orange Festival, which tries to spotlight works that bring together different art forms.

"He was like the first person out of the theater, running down the stairs to where we were having our after-theater beer," Hartley recalled. "And he said right off the bat, 'I'm from Orange County, and I want to bring this to America."' The deal was pretty much struck then, but the initial plan to stage "Soon" in 2000 had to be delayed a year while the Philharmonic Society raised a production budget of $200,000.

After its seven-performance run in Costa Mesa, Hartley hopes to take the show back to his hometown, New York, and to other major cities. Eventually, he says, it will wind up on film as well. Making movies remains his focus, but Hartley thinks he has acquired the theater bug as well.

"I definitely want to continue" writing and directing plays, he said. He doesn't have any ideas yet for further stage work, "but it doesn't take me long to come up with subject matter. It could be about anything."


"Soon," Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 and 7 p.m.; Monday-Wednesday, 8 p.m. $25. (714) 556-2787 or (949) 553-2422.

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