Bringing back the most popular show in a theater’s 18-year history may sound like a holier-than-thou undertaking, but, to paraphrase the good book, [s]he who practices righteousness is usually right. The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) first debuted at Amphibian Stage Productions in 2013 and became a sensation with local church groups. On a recent Saturday night, I attended a performance to witness the show happening on stage and off — there may be no greater form of entertainment than watching committed Christians react to Jesus jokes.
For it is shameful even to speak of this play without acknowledging the great writing of Adam Long, founding member of The Reduced Shakespeare Company, The Bible doesn’t stray far from the hilarity seen in other Long scripts, including The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). Amphibian Artistic Director Kathleen Anderson Culebro commented that Long and his fellow co-writers, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, welcomed the company to improvise the script with modern or regional allusions to current events, so, of course, the POTUS was popped more than once.
In the beginning, God commands the stage with a booming announcer voice, and we lay eyes on three, not two, foliage-attired, socks-and-Jesus-sandaled gospel scholars, who will tell the tales of the Old and New Testament in just over two hours and 15 minutes. Without the pretense of a second, third, or fourth wall, the actors go by their real names. Our God-narrator for the evening is played by Brandon Murphy, who steps in and out of familiar biblical characters’ roles as needed. The more dramatic Aaron Fouhey thunks around stage as many masculine archetypes (Adam, Cain, Goliath), though he is continually deterred from fulfilling his dream of playing Noah. Opposite Aaron is Scott Zenreich, who cheerfully crossdresses as Sarah, Salome, and every other good-book shero the trio needs to compress the “greatest story ever accepted as fact.”
The chemistry among the cast members takes off like a line of antacid rockets, bubbling before bursting with cyclical personality clashes on repeat. Murphy’s dry stoicism is a steady anchor, tying down the fickle faithmongers in his company but never at the expense of his own wisecracks. An inflated sense of gaiety in Zenreich goes above what an audience might expect in terms of comic relief, sans the overdramatization most actors would subscribe to this character, who could easily be dismissed as a bumbling idiot. The real zest of the performance, however, is carried by Fouhey as he overplays what delights and displeases him in the other cast members’ approach to storytelling, giving us the greatest overall show in character development as he strings us along through his tiny personal dramas and one hell of a jeremiad.
Plenty of praise should be given to Director Jay Duffer, who returned to direct this show and who kept the play moving faster than a sinner in confession. He obviously handles physical comedy well, which helps cue the audience to almost every jab in this heavy-handed show. If you think you missed a punchline, don’t bother asking your neighbor. Count to two, and you’ll catch another.
The scenic design by Sean Urbantke made for a glowing temple onstage, complete with a focal point of stained glass, organ pipe accents, and a spiral of red-and-white tile. I could almost roll my eyes at the sound design by David Lanza, whom I’ve applauded more than once this year as the prodigal son of the Fort Worth theater community. (The man can record no wrongs.) Perhaps the greatest surprise seen on set overall, though, came from Props Master Stefany Cambra. Her creative propping stood in for many an absent character, object, or scene, especially in the case of Eve, a puppet with a foreskin joke I will remember forever.
With all due respect to classically trained thespians involved, abrasive comedic timing ought to be held in higher regard than what it has been lately, and this production is evidence of that truth. The almost nonstop laughter of theatergoers during The Bible last weekend echoes louder than any praising of The Phibs I can deliver. Seek and ye shall find all the amusement you can handle in one evening.
The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)
Thru Aug 13 at Amphibian Stage Productions, 120 S Main St, FW. $33. 817-923-3012