Review: Greycoats' “Charisma!” Tackles Evangelism

The Minneapolis indie rockers dramatized their new album in a darkly satirical staging

Reverend Jonny (Jon Reine) and Serena (Amanda Day) at Southern Theater/Photo by Dan Norman

Minneapolis-based indie rock band Greycoats have been assembling ambitious album release shows since day one. For the release of The World of Tomorrow in 2013, they asked local artists to create a visual interpretation of each song on the album. As they played through the album at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis, those pieces sat behind them on display. For the 2015 Adrift, they christened Paikka, the industrial-chic St. Paul event space (spare, spooky, and a little dank at the time), just as the dust settled, encouraging those in attendance to tinker with an interactive spaceship. Jon Reine, the frontman, dressed in a white, light-up suit, led the audience on a tour of space as the Celestial Man.

Charisma!, Greycoats’ latest album release show, just completed a successful four-day run at the Southern Theater. It was billed as a multimedia experience—part rock show, part film, part play, all tackling the hypocrisy and showmanship of evangelism. This marriage of mediums was maximalist in its scope, and, from the outset, a seemingly impossible feat for the 200-capacity theater.

The show opens in the near dark as Reverend Jonny—played by Reine—proclaims, “And the Lord God said, it is not good for a man to be alone,” the gilt-edged Bible in his hand glinting in the spotlight. The short monologue breaks into “Devotion,” a sure-footed, post-punk rollick that feels like a preacher’s antidote to Joy Division’s “Division.” Reine’s presence is menacing and palpable. Donned in a full suit with worn wingtips, an auburn comb-over wig, and thick-framed glasses, Reine stares off into nowhere and makes cryptic hand gestures to match the graphically-rendered gestures playing on a video screen. Reine’s cool stoicism is part Ian Curits, part Paul Banks of Interpol, but then he drops to a knee and pleads, “Where’s your devotion?” thereby disrupting any notion that this will be a stiff, post-punk forbearance.

Photo by Dan Norman

After the song, Reverend Jonny’s wife, Serena, played by the inimitable Amanda Day, jumps on stage and proclaims, in a thick Southern accent, “Good morning, everybody! It is a good morning, isn’t it? Can I get an amen?”

Short scenes—maybe five minutes, max—between Reverend Jonny and wife Serena (the only two stage actors) slide into songs from the album. The story goes on to show how the couple grew their ministry from a meager cable-access television slot to a multi-million-dollar Christian Broadcasting company, where they preach and ask viewers to become “faith partners” and help finance their jets and cross-shaped swimming pools. Over time, we see Jonny’s temptation with a prostitute, Linda (played by Sierra Schermerhorn) and watch as Jonny and Serena battle tabloid news and secret addictions and eventually spiral out of control.

The band plays through the entire album, and interviews and scenes of Linda and Jonny are shown on video between songs. Linda is only ever seen on screen, and her contrast to Serena is stark. Her name, her makeup, her speech—everything about her is plain and understated, while Serena boasts heavy makeup and sequined shoulder pads and mindless giggles. A standout moment comes when Linda, being interviewed on a Geraldo-like talk show, says, “This whole country is full of money-grubbing hypocrites and this whole country is going to hell. That’s one thing he’s right about.” Then she turns to the camera and icily says, “You got that?”

Photo by Dan Norman

Another poignant moment comes just before intermission. During “Confession,” Reverend Jonny sings, “I want to dance with the devil tonight” and “feel the rush of a prodigal life” as Serena is shown on video, plucking lashes, rubbing off makeup, and popping pills.

Another powerful moment comes after the gleefully buoyant “Electronic Pulpit”—during which a montage of ’80s television and charismatic preachers plays on the screen—when Reverend Jonny delivers a monologue which begins, “Prostitution! Wickedness! Sin! I see sin everywhere.” All the while Serena sits at her vanity toward the back of the stage. Later, Serena claims she “feels like literally punching sin,” and a devil piñata drops from the ceiling. “What’s that, a piña colada?” Reverend Jonny stutters. Serena smashes the piñata to pieces, first with a baseball bat and then with a guitar, condemning Smurfs (on Friday) and Stephen King (on Sunday) as blood-red confetti cascades over the first few rows.

During “Blessed,” Jonny is up late working because, “The Lord has called him to work on his ministry,” so Serena says she’s going shopping. “But it’s the middle of the night,” Jonny says, to which she replies, “I just like to get their early. My shopping demons are hopping!” We watch her in a blissed-out state of near sleep, as she and Reine admit on the dark and bubbly duet, “Offerings are a girl’s best friend.”

Overall, Reine’s stamina is remarkable, oscillating between band frontman and Reverend Jonny delivering stage-play lines and remaining magically in character and seemingly unwinded the entire time. Both he and Day apparently studied old televangelist clips, because they’re eerily good at intimating the cadences of the excitable (and sometimes downright babbling) televangelist, and every now and then it’s hard not to smile at their impersonations.

Photo by Dan Norman

If the story sounds familiar, the show has its roots in a few 1980s figures who grappled with scandals of their own—Tammy Fay Baker. Jimmy Baker, and Jimmy Swaggart, who visited a prostitute and whose downfall became famous in the evangelical world.

Every detail, down to the band’s stoic regard for Jonny and intermittent “hallelujahs”—we are made to understand, later on, that the band is acting as Jonny’s board of deacons—is a testament to Seth Bockley’s direction, the production’s vision and commitment to detail. And I’m no tech savant, but it seems nothing short of a miracle that John Stojevich (sound) and Joanna McLarnan (lighting) were able to keep transitions and time in sync to the swirling mediums. What’s that old adage about good fashion? The best-dressed usually go unnoticed?

Kevin’s Horn’s video work is exceptional, too, for its variety in tone and for his ability to capture Reverend Jonny’s many moods and demons. In one standout shot, Reverend Jonny is shown as a young preacher going door-to-door, selling Bibles and continually failing. Toward the end of the song, Jonny is seen in a dark hallway, pleading with the camera and waving his hands like a madman, putting me in mind of Requiem for a Dream. “I keep waiting, for a signal,” Reine sings, jittery and mechanical and occasionally blown back as if by a wave, as his younger self on screen grapples with hearing God’s voice.

So, what to make of Charisma!? The story begs many interpretations, but a few spring to mind: Charisma! is a character study—one man’s descent into isolation; a critique of evangelical hysteria; a fairy tale of greed and delusion; a critique of consumer culture (which ran rampant in the ’80s); a reinterpretation of the story of Job—one man’s problems get worse and worse and his faith is tested again and again; a story of a marriage on the rocks (and the quiet desperation that ensues); a critique of bombastic language (the bulk of the story was written during the 2016 election, Reine said on Friday); all of these things.

Charisma! is all but a nostalgic romp. Indeed, it’s one of the most demanding shows I’ve attended in recent memory. While Jonny and Serena regale us with stories and preach about the Lord’s many blessings, the audience is asked to be the live studio audience of their television show, Good Morning, Lord, sometimes urged to “hallelujah” and “amen” along with them. While the band plays, we are asked to spectate at a rock concert. And while the videos play, we are sometimes asked to not only view the video but also to listen to and watch the band. The tone, likewise, varies from menacing to apocalyptic to happy-go-lucky to forlorn to reflective. In other words, it’s exhausting, but exhilarating, and I, even after attending two of the four shows, wanted to take each part in isolation, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. While things happen all at once, we are asked to hold it all in our heads and parse our role instinctively. Thus is the challenge—and perhaps the whole point of Charisma!. What is it to you? Where did you look the most? What flame were you most tempted by?