If an anti-corporate god does indeed exist, then Reverend Billy is his prophet. The good reverend—a creation of performance artist Bill Talen—sings, dances, shakes, twitches, and preaches his unapologetically leftist gospel. Eyes bugged out and fingers splayed, both his spirit and the flesh seem tremendously willing. But in Reverend Billy’s latest performance—a series of Sunday meetings at the Culture Project—there is a weakness: the word.
For the last several years, Talen has been making a name for himself as an exponent of a clever and infectious political theater that actually accomplishes some change. Whether encouraging tourists to boycott the Disney store or leading marches resulting in the semi-preservation of the Poe house, he typically combines his theatrics with direct action. This new sermon, however, finds the Reverend exploring the global rather than the local, his sect redubbed the Church of Stop Bombing (né Stop Shopping). Unfortunately, his take on terrorism and pacifism lacks the off-kilter originality and specificity of his anti-consumerist agenda. Anyone can criticize Donald Rumsfeld or decry our bombing in Afghanistan, but only Billy can lead preach-ins at the Disney store, a four-foot-tall Mickey held captive above his head.
Consequently, the new show’s best moments find Billy distracted from his rhetoric and lamenting Kinko’s, Kmarts, and NYU’s bulldozing of Washington Square. The performance also benefits from an off-the-cuff talent-show feel, as Billy invites Nuyorican spoken-word artists or Asian American hip-hop dancers to do a turn. With America wrapped up in patriotic fervor—”a red meat moment,” as the Reverend has it—it’s no wonder Talen has international concerns. But we need his energies at home. After all, brothers and sisters, someone has to stop a fourth Starbucks from opening in Astor Place.