“Earthalujah!” Shouts Reverend Billy

Ian Duncan

With huge facial features, a mane of dyed blond hair and an immaculate white suit, Bill Talen looks every bit the televangelist. But he is not offering eternal salvation.

Mr. Talen is the leader of the Church of Earthalujah. Styling himself Reverend Billy , he delivers environmental rhetoric in the manner of a charismatic evangelical preacher.

Each Sunday through June, Mr. Talen will be lending his theatrical services at Theater 80 on St. Mark’s Place . Mr. Talen is supported by the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, who belt out songs Mr. Talen has written that relate to the church’s themes – the evils of capitalism, impending environmental disaster and the decline of neighborhoods.

That last will have particular resonance in the East Village. Mr. Talen now lives in Brooklyn with his wife Savitri D, who is the show’s director, but between 1973 and 1974 he lived near the corner of East Sixth Street and Avenue C. Despite good memories, Mr. Talen is cautious about mourning the loss of the old East Village.

“It was exciting,” he says of his time living here, “but there were muggings and so forth, so I don’t want to be sentimental about it. Now of course people use those memories as a pretext for putting restaurants in the middle of Union Square, maintaining private security.”

“And they say, well you don’t want it to be needle park again, do you?”

At a time when small stores are under threat , Mr. Talen is fighting to keep Wal-Mart out of New York. This Saturday he will be taking part in a demonstration at a proposed site for the supermarket.

During Sunday’s show, the church honored Dinosaur Hill , a toy store on East Ninth Street between First and Second Avenues. The store donated a giant inflatable globe as a raffle prize. Mr. Talen punched the globe out into the audience before it eventually came to rest at the side of the stage.

The venue’s 161 seats were roughly two-thirds full last weekend and the audience was neither hipster nor hippie. Robert Bernevenga, 44, was typical. He owns L’Asso, an Italian restaurant on Mott Street. This was Mr. Bernevenga’s first time seeing Reverend Billy in Action and he said he was drawn to the show because he shares the church’s anti-commercialist ideas.

Overall, the audience looked decidedly mainstream but for Savitri D, that is an advantage of performing in the East Village.

“You can have diverse audiences in the East Village,” she says, “we can’t just keep talking to our little circle.”

The Church of Stop Shopping as it was then called, coalesced around Billy in the late 1990’s. After Mr. Talen ran for mayor of New York on the Green Party ticket in 2009 , the church started campaigning on environmental issues.

The group regards natural disasters as signs of the Earth’s distress and this week’s performance was given a somber tone by news of the previous Friday’s earthquake in Japan . At a rehearsal in a room above the theater, Savitri D told choir members that a line in one of their songs – “fire, flood, tsunamis, quake” – had to be sung without any hint of irony that night.

For all the humor in Mr. Talen’s performance, there were also moments of emotional depth.

After the Reverend’s appearance on the stage, he brought the 35 members of the choir to the front of the stage and began a prayer for those who had lost their lives. “We not only honor the force of the Earth but we honor the lives of the people who met it,” Mr. Talen said.

The entire theatre had fallen silent except for the electric hum of a stage light.

Later in the show, the church bestowed sainthood on author Douglas Rushkoff , who was slumped in his chair in the audience. Like Mr. Talen, Mr. Rushkoff is a former East Village resident, living at East Ninth Street and Avenue B in the early 1990’s.

After the show, Mr. Ruskoff said he has spent much of his life being priced out of so-called affordable neighborhoods. “Anything that helps people is done as an idea,” he said, before adding, “Every time I come to Manhattan, I feel less sad that I don’t live here anymore.”