Feb 25, 2016

Theater Review (NYC): ‘So Amazing!’ by Diana Brown – Solo Show Chronicles Cult Escape

Jon Sobel
February 25, 2016

So Amazing!’ by Diana Brown
So Amazing!’ by Diana Brown
Let’s face it, cults are fascinating. How do people get sucked in? What techniques are at play, what psychological weaknesses? We can’t help seeing ourselves in cult victims and wondering: What got them? Could it get me too? And if they escaped, how did they do it? Diana Brown digs into the matter in her entertaining and thoughtful, if unpolished and not entirely satisfying, autobiographical solo show So Amazing!

Brown is cracklingly good at portraying the various characters in her cautionary tale, especially the initially hilarious but ultimately terrifying gang of “white women in their 30s” who inexplicably speak with Korean accents as they approach potential victims. These drones subtly enfolded Brown in their chilling, hyper-friendly embrace, convincing her that joining their church with its end-times theology was the only route to salvation.
The appealingly energetic Brown makes us root for her to succeed on stage as much as to escape the cult. (She doesn’t name the church in question, but gives enough clues that one can easily identify it via an internet search. It’s no small-time operation.) We know she did get out – here she is before us, telling her story.

As for the stage show, it has the kernels of a bumper crop but needs development. Enlisting a director would be a good start, someone to eliminate the slide-show lecture elements and help find a way to work that information into the performance itself; to smooth the transitions; and to help the show address more thoroughly the big questions Brown poses.

For one thing, I wanted to see, to understand, what was really going on in her mind during the indoctrination. Did the entrepreneurial struggles she depicts help create a sense of insecurity that left her vulnerable? She had a best friend, a loving family. What else was going on? She gives us enough to make us wish she’d give us more. And she’s talented and likable enough that we’d happily stay with her for another half hour. What made the cult’s practices so initially appealing? Was it just the creepy friendliness of her new “sisters?” Why didn’t more alarm bells go off in her clearly smart brain? Inquiring minds want to know!

Brown tells us that no two escape stories are alike, so she has no answer to the general question of how people get free of cults. But the show also left me wanting to know more about her own escape.

She outlines the events. Her parents engaged a cult expert, and took his advice to take their daughter someplace she’d loved before. (The fact that it’s a Shania Twain concert in Las Vegas gives Brown the chance to abbreviate the event for us in a most amusing way.) Then there’s a formal intervention, complete with a temper tantrum and meltdown.

Then, suddenly, she’s free. She merely mentions the lingering PTSD and the help she has needed from mental health professionals. What about all that? It feels like a chapter’s missing.

That said, Brown is to be applauded for bringing us this bright, heartfelt narrative. It surely takes emotional bravery. It must require another kind of courage too, given the cult’s own, more sinister interventions with disaffected members. Her sheer personal energy is irresistible, her story both bracingly entertaining and humanely hopeful.

So Amazing! has two more performances as part of the FRIGID New York Festival. And you can find out more about the show at its website.

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