Seth Lepore left the Roman Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts by age 14. Some of his doubts were personal - the church’s warnings against masturbation were an issue - and he’d also started reading up on meditation and Eastern philosophy. Over the next two decades, he tried a variety of spiritual and self-improvement regimens, but never found one that he could go all the way with. His skepticism never left him.
“People start to make their gurus into gods,’’ Lepore says. “There’s plenty of people I know in these alternative traditions who are very grounded and wise people . . . but there’s plenty of people who get swept up into it, and it just becomes another dogmatic formation that they cling to.’’
The performing artist and writer has channeled his doubts into “Losing My Religion: Confessions of a New Age Refugee,’’ a comic look at the strangeness and scams on the edge of American spirituality. The show plays the Arlington Center for the Arts tonight and tomorrow.
Alone onstage, Lepore alternates tales of his own journey with character sketches inspired by the deluded seekers and snake-oil salespeople he has met along the way.
There’s the men’s group leader who has to dispel rumors: “Myth 5. ‘This is a cult.’ No. We provide a loving environment and support system that creates breakthroughs that most men can’t find at work, home, with their family or friends.’’
And there’s a 12-stepper at a meeting of Personal Growth Addicts Anonymous, another vignette in the script: “I am Marionette, and I am addicted to New Age Scams. I wanted to let everyone know that your support has been great this last week. I was finally able to stand up for myself and get a partial refund of the ‘Yes I can’ DVD series that I bought a month ago.’’
“Some of the characters are people that I have found through research, some of them are amalgamations of two or three people that I smashed together and make into a mash-up character,’’ Lepore says. “Even though some of them are fictional, a lot of people come up to me afterward and say, ‘I know that person.’ ’’
Lepore, 37, is a Rhode Island native who lives in Westhampton. He went to Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., which embraces both Eastern and Western teaching traditions. He became a Buddhist, then left that practice. His seeking involved everything from supportive men’s groups to a highly confrontational personal-growth seminar.
“Some of it was incredibly transformative and some of it I was getting manipulated and raked over the coals,’’ he says.
By the end of his journey, he no longer felt the need to settle the big questions of spiritual faith. “What happens after you die? I don’t know,’’ he says. “Is there a God? I don’t know. I’m really comfortable with that. It feels so much better than having an answer.’’
The current environment of economic despair, ongoing wars, and ominous ecological news “makes people even more desperate [for answers], makes them reach for these things even harder, because they want something to take away their pain,’’ Lepore says.
But too often, what believers are getting is “a product, just another commodification of spirituality,’’ he says.
Example: The yoga-inspired Lululemon Athletica apparel chain, which “Losing My Religion’’ satirizes with a monologue by the founder of “Moo Moo Melon.’’
“Who needs $85 yoga pants? Nobody,’’ Lepore says. “That’s not what yoga is even about.’’
On Oct. 30, Lepore performed an abbreviated version of “Losing My Religion’’ for a humanist initiative at Harvard University.
“I think Seth is brilliant,’’ says Greg Epstein, Harvard’s humanist chaplain, who saw the performance.
“He takes the point of view of all these things that is represented by the statement ‘I don’t know.’ It’s a kind of agnosticism, but it’s a strong agnosticism, and a smart agnosticism,’’ the chaplain explains. “It says, ‘I don’t know, but you probably don’t know either, and sometimes you say these things that make it seem to vulnerable people like you do know.’ ’’
“Losing My Religion’’ is part of a planned trilogy that Lepore expects to complete over the next couple of years. Part two, to debut in the spring of 2012, is called “SuperHappyMelancholyexpialidocious.’’ It focuses on the positive-thinking movement that he sees infiltrating segments of society from corporations to megachurches. Part three, Lepore says, will focus on the worship of success.Joel Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.