Holy Smokes

Julia Fennell’s Original Sin is a tough pill to swallow wrapped in a sweet, appetizing coating.


By Emma-Victoria Banos

Original Sin, written by Julia Fennell and performed by University Theater, is an intensely atheist musical that holds a complete disregard for people’s religious beliefs and isn’t ashamed to flaunt it. In the play, Judy, a pastor, gets sent to hell even though she has dedicated her life to God. She thinks it’s a mistake until she confronts God, who declares that she is, in fact, a sinner for wearing a pastoral stole made of 80 percent cotton and 20 percent polyester—a blatant transgression of Leviticus 19:19, which says, “Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” Judy then realizes that the god she worships is unforgiving to an unreasonable extent.

This may be true, as many people use religion as a justification to dictate how other people should behave even when it has no direct impact on their own lives. However, I do take issue with the fact that sinners are rewarded for their sins in this play’s portrayal of the afterlife and that people who never did anything wrong are lumped in with those sinners. I’m not daft; I know that’s the whole point—that God, a metaphor for religion, is callously unforgiving and unaccepting. But it stings to think that the play implies that everyone is forgiven regardless of the crimes they committed, even murder. It is a funny idea to portray hell as a funny place if everyone who’s there just committed minor transgressions. But it’s wrong to lump somebody who committed suicide with someone who took someone else’s life.

That is the point of this play—that not all crimes in the eyes of God have victims, which is an excellent observation of unfairness. However, it seemed like a convenient step-around to have the first people that Judy meets in hell be an alcoholic who committed suicide and a gay man. Most of us in modern-day America would argue that people like that do not deserve to be punished. I’m gay myself, and if there were a hell, I don’t think I’d be going there. There are religious extremists, though, that think that all gay people deserve to go to hell. But just because society’s perception of sin has evolved doesn’t mean that all sinners should be protected from harm. When Judy boldly announces that they’ll “make sure God doesn’t hurt anyone like He hurt us,” I think that the play undermines the one good aspect of religion—that it keeps people who may otherwise be immoral from being immoral out of fear. When it comes to certain crimes, we should be able to judge those who committed them.

So my question is this: If God can’t make an accurate judgement of others and neither can we, who can hold those individuals accountable for doing harm to others? Should we let everyone do as they please until we all reach the same destination, death? Original Sin lumps everyone of all creeds into hell, which is a happy place, presumably because it represents freedom from pain and an absence of anything. It represents death, which nobody has ever been able to escape. Original Sin mocks the absurdity in our thinking any of us are superior to anyone else, because our existence is so painfully short that what we do during our lives doesn’t really matter much. This nihilism and the jabs at the idea of god are what bother me, even though I agree with the play’s general sentiment.

That said, Original Sin is extreme to the degree that much religious propaganda is. There’s a play sponsored by the Malaysian government called Abnormal Desire in which characters who don’t follow Islamic religious practices and continue living a homosexual lifestyle—wrapped up in drug usage and casual sex—are struck by lightning and killed for their sins. You might even call Original Sin the polar opposite of Abnormal Desire. Sometimes fire should be fought with fire, and in this sense, I’m glad that Original Sin takes a strong pro-acceptance stance, even if it is extreme. All in all, I think this play gives you a lot to chew on, even if you take offense with the portrayal of God in Original Sin. On the whole, I enjoyed watching it. Everything from the musical numbers to the premise was original. On top of this, the performance was executed as well as it could have been over Zoom. The musical numbers were prerecorded and the actors lip-synched to the recordings, preventing any audio quality issues, although I can’t help but wonder why the backing track wasn’t simply played while the actors sang over it. It felt as if one component of a live performance was missing. (Then again, what do you expect? The play takes place in the underworld. No one’s alive!)

Jokes aside, I commend the cast’s effort to make a musical work over Zoom and coordinate ambitious dance numbers. Even if not every number landed on its feet, it was a pleasure to watch a play that made a statement about the toxicity of judging others for their life choices. Once you start judging people for alcoholism or homosexuality, it’s a slippery slope toward judging people for wearing clothes made of mixed fabrics.