Theatre review: Homo Pentecostus, Malthouse Theatre

A multifarious exploration of religion, history, culture and sexuality.

As the audience walks in to find their seats in the Malthouse’s Beckett Theatre, actor and Homo Pentecostus co-creator Peter Paltos is already in the space, on hands and knees on the Yves Klein-ish blue carpet, in high-waisted Levi’s and denim shirt, using a Dustbuster on the floor. He greets audience members cheekily over his shoulder as he wiggles his bum and flashes a saucy look.

The set, designed by Kate Davis, evokes the clinical modernity of a community church – that blue carpet, white stackable plastic chairs against the dusky blue floor-to-ceiling Venetian blinds at the rear of the stage, the old-school overhead projector on a trolley. 

As the lights go down, Homo Pentecostus co-deviser Joel Bray arrives on stage, and Paltos and Bray welcome us with high-energy “hellos”, to loud pulsing music, like evangelical rockstars.

The audience is asked what “Pentecostal” means to us – people yell out answers: ‘Scott Morrison!’ ‘Speaking in tongues!’ And Paltos and Bray banter back and forth, reflecting on their own experiences in Pentecostal churches, to which they no longer belong. 

The work is broken up between to-audience chat, scenes of reflective conversation between Paltos and Bray and movement-based choreographed sequences. At one point we in the audience find ourselves loudly singing and swaying with our hands in the air – Paltos and Bray clearly would make effective evangelical leaders. 

The sections of movement serve to connect the ritualised experiences of the Pentecostal – and Christian more broadly – tradition, with ritualised elements of gay culture: driving techno beats with shirtless torso gyrations evoke the club, while meaningful looks, crotch-grabbing and a head nod cast across a space take us to the beat. 

There is a lot of deeply personal content explored by both artists – Paltos talks with emotion about his Armenian grandfather, who was branded with a cross across his forehead during the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1916 before escaping to Egypt. He talks about how he considers himself a cultural, political Christian – and, despite having a number of problems with the bigoted views he’s personally experienced in the Church, he’s not there to diss Christianity. He wants to respect what his grandfather went through. 

Joel Bray is a Wiradjuri man, and talks about the genocide of First Peoples, and how his great grandfather was prevented from speaking Language while on the mission – and, because of that, his granny never learned Language, and so neither his father nor he now speak it. But, he says with a smile, it’s coming back. People are reclaiming what is lost and relearning language, and for that he has hope.

Homo Pentecostus, through movement, humour and frank reflection, explores the complex relationships between culture, heritage, history, sexuality and both artists’ experiences of the Pentecostal church and Christianity, as well as spirituality and belief in a god. 

The work is structured simply, and director and co-creator Emma Valente has done a wonderful job of employing simple devices to move between sections of the work and drive towards the conclusion of the piece. The white chairs are built into towers, then knocked down and thrown around, becoming a chaotic landscape, before being built into a mountain.

The final scene connects both performers with their heritage, queerness and with each other, and a piece of music uses didgeridoo and Arabic styles, before descending into a deep, driving techno beat. 

Read: Musical review: Priscilla Queen of the Desert – the musical, Mandurah Performing Arts Centre

Paltos is a truly exceptional actor – his dry humour and command of the powerful tools that are his voice and body enable quick shifts between moments and a complex and satisfying emotional landscape. Bray is a gifted dancer, and his raw physicality layers the work with a visceral sensuality. Together, for Homo Pentecostus, they’ve created a nuanced piece of personal, poetic and thoughtful theatre that manages to entertain while packing a complex emotional punch. 

Homo Pentecostus
Beckett Theatre, Malthouse Theatre

Co-Creator, Writer, Co-Director and Cast: Joel Bray
Co-Creator and Co-Director: Emma Valente
Co-Creator and Cast: Peter Paltos
Set and Costume Designer: Kate Davis
Lighting Designer: Katie Sfetkidis
Composer and Sound Designer: Marco Cher-Gibard
Associate Lighting Designer: Spencer Herd
Associate Sound Designer: Justin Gardam
Stage Manager: Jess Keepence

Homo Pentecostus is at the Beckett Theatre, Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne until 25 May.

Kate Mulqueen is an actor, writer, musician and theatre-maker based in Naarm (Melbourne). Instagram: @picklingspirits Facebook: @katemulq Twitter: @katemulqueen