I’ve always thought of the theatre as a kind of church, but I also grew up Pentecostal in the 1990s. Projecting church-like spirituality onto one’s surroundings is just the inevitable effect of a Pentecostal upbringing – no matter how long it’s been since one left the church.

“The world is seen through a Spiritual prism”, writes Joel Bray in his artist’s note for Homo Pentecostus, a new thrilling tragicomedy that fuses contemporary dance and confessional theatre to ask how we might see this Pentecostal world long after we’ve left it.

Hilarious, heart-wrenching, and formally playful, it’s a searing portrait of the complex tensions between sexuality, culture and history that define spirituality for two gay men.

Joel Bray: Homo Pentacostus. Photo © Gianna Rizzo

Bray greets us as we enter Malthouse’s Beckett Theatre with tea, coffee and an earnest grin any youth pastor would envy.

His scene partner Peter Paltos is vacuuming every corner of a blue carpet on stage, peeking over his shoulder with a cheeky smile or flirtatious wink. It’s hard to tell if we’re being courted, cruised or welcomed into a Hillsong-style Megachurch, which is also kind of the point.

Bray’s work has always been committed to audience immersion. In Considerable Sexual License, he dropped us in the middle of a Sircuit party to examine colonial violence. In Homo Pentecostus we are his congregation, gathered to hear a 70-minute sermon from the two men about their religious upbringing and its continuing legacies.

Armenian, Greek and Egyptian, Paltos grew up Orthodox and very closeted; Bray grew up a closeted Wiradjuri man thrust into the Pentecostal church at the expense of learning more about his Aboriginal ancestry.

The pair begin by parodying the commonplace oddities of their upbringing, leading a hesitant opening night audience in a choir-like rendition of Cher’s Believe before running us through a list of classic Pentecostal sins projected on to a screen that range from the ridiculous (yoga) to the classic (murder, good sex).

Joel Bray and Peter Paltos: Homo Pentacostus. Photo © Gianna Rizzo

Seeing Bray dancing nude between two church pews before reenacting his own coming out via an absurdly dark musical sequence will be unsurprising to anyone who’s seen one of his shows.

He has been creating wild, unruly and incredibly ambitious hybrid dance-theatre in Melbourne for a while now, and his signature blend of conceptual, queer choreography informed by his cultural heritage as a Wiradjuri man – here underscored by perfect, heart-pulsing club beats by Marco Cher-Gibard – remains as enigmatic as ever.

But what begins as tongue-in-cheek pastiche turns into a soul-searching, and bracingly honest reflection on the complexities of both men’s spiritual and cultural inheritance. Nowhere else have I seen Bray so restrained. The show is by no means pared back, but it does favour a quietude that begins to feel – as per the Pentecostal “Spiritual prism” – confessional, allowing conversations to play out with a slow naturalism that makes their talks feel very real.

Paltos pulls off this subtle conversational style best. He’s a charismatic performer, packing wit and pathos into every line with an arched eyebrow, wry smile or loaded pause. He leans into more absurd moments in the script without coming across as insincere or gauche.

Hearing him discuss the cultural significance of the symbol of the crucifix for survivors of the Armenian genocide stands out as one the show’s most affecting moments, prompting a poignant discussion about ancestry and intergenerational trauma between the two. It is one of many near-transcendent examples of the show rising above the temptation to be schematic about religion to reach more complex, near-heavenly, discursive heights.

Joel Bray and Peter Paltos: Homo Pentacostus. Photo © Gianna Rizzo

Bray and Paltos are still well-matched performers despite their differing skill sets. At times you wish Paltos could rise to Bray’s skill as a dancer; and likewise, during emotional monologues, that Bray could match Paltos as an actor. But if the pair don’t quite strike an equilibrium in the end, their palpable chemistry is more than enough to keep us engaged. All the same, the show could use a trim, slowing down to a near-sluggish crawl by the end just when you wish it would pick up.

Thankfully, director Emma Valente has a keen eye for pacing and scene transitions move with a graceful speed that help avoid the show feeling too languid. Meanwhile Katie Sfetkidis’s lighting splashes a simple but effective set (Kate Davis) in eye-catching technicolour and arresting shadows that take us from megachurch to natural landscape.

What we land on in the end is well-worth the wait: a final sequence that seems to thrum with ritualistic, near-ceremonial weight. Religious, and spiritual iconography sit side-by-side with queer, and culturally specific costuming to create an arresting tableau.

It feels, as all of Homo Pentecostus does, like an offer to see religion and spirituality in a new way, or a reminder that for many it has always been seen and experienced like this.

Homo Pentacostus plays in the Beckett Theatre, Melbourne until 25 May

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