When actor Bill Talen was slapped with $10,000 in fines last week for sticking up leaflets advertising his show, you almost had to wonder whether city authorities don’t have a sense of humor after all, albeit a cruel one. Call it an exercise in poetic injustice, but the irony was sharp enough to cut through NYPD plastic handcuffs. The day before cops arrived at Talen’s door with 100 pink summonses demanding $100 each, he had taken to stage and street as the charismatic Reverend Billy to rail against the humongous corporate advertisements that bombard city neighborhoods, assailing us with “involuntary entertainment” and setting off a “consumer narcosis” within us.
Once a vibrant portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat sneered benignly down over Noho, noted the Reverend Billy at his weekly service of the Church of Stop Shopping (Sundays through March at the Salon Theater). But recently, he preached, “they painted it gray and put up a Dockers ad. And now this Sky Vodka asshole, a Brad Pitt clone, is mixing 50 martinis at once. These beings look down at us from buildings as our new angels, children, and they want us to do nothing but shop.”
“Thass right, revrund,” urges a member of the Macky Dees Gospel Choir, which sits on stage in shiny blue robes and breaks into stirring, exhortatory tunes from time to time. (“Can we stop shop-ping, can we talk shop?” goes one catchy vamp.) The Reverend Billy’s voice takes on a fuming vibrato as he goes on to condemn the big new fabric signs that cover the sides of buildings like giant window shades. “You’re sitting drinking your coffee one morning and it feels like the windows are unusually dirty,” he thunders. “You’re living inside an ad now. You go outside and look back at your building and you’ve got a 90-foot-tall teenager having a problem in a Gap T-shirt. Amen.”
“Amen,” shouts the crowd, and by performance’s end, the flock is following the preacher to the corner of Mulberry and Prince, where the latest offender looms over the cemetery of the old St. Patrick’s, disturbing the dead with its promise to help them know anything with About.com.
But an 11-by-17 paper leaflet taped to a lamppost, showing a grinning Reverend Billy with a crucified Mickey Mouse at his shoulder? That’s a $10,000 quality-of-life infraction. QED for the Reverend.
There are even deeper ways in which Talen’s character has exposed the paradoxes of America’s ecstatic consumerism. First, there’s the truly subversive nature of his call. If Americans really did stop buying things they didn’t need, the economy would most certainly collapse. And yet even folks who aren’t flush feel the euphoria of the ascending stock market, and go ever deeper into debt, fueled by the virtual wealth effect of the dot-com blaze.
Reverend Billy is a dot-commie, exposing the contradictions of a smoke-and-mirrors industry, where moguls make money, not things, and the system requires workers to be poorly paid to boost the profits of corporations, while simultaneously needing those same workers to buy, buy, buy—and thus borrow, borrow, borrow. In one of the show’s rapturous rituals, he urges the “congregation” to take out its credit cards and wave them in the air for symbolic demagnetization. A hundred hands hold out their little pieces of plastic in a wry gesture of witness.
The leftist right-reverend co-opts such churchy actions in a way that is at once ironic and consequential. Far from merely parodying the hypocrisy of a corrupt evangelical demagogue, Reverend Billy is tapping into the communal, sacral origins of theater, offering media-saturated young audiences a share in the messy, public present-ness of live performance. “Isn’t it good to believe in something?” he asks the crowd as he strides onto the stage after an introductory hymn from the choir, his eyes bugging, teeth gleaming, blond-tipped hair holding fast in its swept-up place. “Isn’t it bizarre to believe in something?”
Of course, he’s also comically inverting the religious right’s role in politics (a touchy and powerful target, as John McCain recently learned) by queering its tropes and sanctifying secular activism. Each week, the Church of Stop Shopping offers inspiring scriptural readings from the likes of William Burroughs and Toni Morrison. In one service, a deacon interrupts the reading with the hilarious and poignant announcement, “And now a word from our sponsor: Walter Benjamin.” Then Reverend Billy asks the congregation to rise and join in the collective singing of the “we believes.” In a faux-Gregorian drone, the audience chants along: “We believe in the god that people who don’t believe in god believe in. We believe in the voluntary withdrawal by Starbucks, Duane Reade, Staples, Disney, Gap, and Barnes and Noble from, if not New York, just get out of my face.”
And each week, the Church of Stop Shopping inducts new saints: local community activists such as the proprietors of the bulldozed Esperanza community garden on 7th Street and the cyber-guerrilla group RTMark.
Resistance groups like these represent the stirrings of a new movement. Reverend Billy is seizing the pulpit to deliver us unto it. If only we have the faith to build it.