The Good Book
Dennis O’Hare & Lisa Peterson
|Denmo Ibrahim with Elijah Alexander, Lance Gardner & Wayne Wilcox|
It is the most published, most translated, most read, and probably controversial book in the world. There are those who base all life’s decisions on its verses and those who sneer at the hypocrisies and contradictions of the people who pick and choose which verses to follow and which to ignore. Many believe God inspired every word; some believe it is a book of pure fiction; others just see it as a book of great literature, particularly enthralled by its poetry and musical qualities. It is this very book, the Bible, that Dennis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson dare to undertake the mammoth task of tackling its history and its effects on people’s lives in their 2015 play, The Good Book. Now receiving its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, The Good Book spans thousands of years of the Bible’s history while also focusing on two people – one a believer and one an atheist – whose lives are intricately and emotionally governed by this book they both would call ‘good’ but for largely different reasons.
The playwrights present an immense challenge to Lisa Peterson as she directs a complex collage of several dozen scenes – scenes that overlap, interconnect, and jump in all directions time-wise, location-wise, and story-wise. The director responds in the Berkeley Rep production by using the entire arena and aisles of Peet’s Theatre to ensure the scenes flow seamlessly at a click that unfolds the three interconnecting stories at a pace that holds one’s attention every minute of the near-three hours. A superlative cast of seven is divided between two actors who play one principal part each and five who each play seemingly countless roles that change their eras, nationalities, and even sexes at the twist of the next scenic sequence.
One of the three ongoing stories is Professor Miriam Lewis’s lifelong quest to answer the question she poses in a dream to St. Jerome, “Do you think it is possible to find meaning without belief?” Miriam is a biblical scholar and lecturer at an Ivy League university; and Miriam is also an avid, no-holes-barred atheist. A woman who says her specialty is “sarcasm,” she lectures us about this book she variously calls “a dark attic” “a dark house,” and “a literary game of telephone;” yet at the same time she admits that the book that is used both to win and start arguments is still “a good book.”
Annette O’Toole brings a sheer intensity of character that is stunning and near scary to behold in her Miriam. Miriam has no patience for those who believe the Bible without thinking twice about doing so (and that, we begin to see, is perhaps her Achilles heel). She flies into a near epileptic, tantrum in front of her students about how she has “no tolerance for people who do not listen to experts” (i.e., especially her). That tight-fisted, tight-jawed intolerance includes no forgiving her life partner of twenty-plus years, Hassan (one of the many roles Elijah Alexander so ably undertakes) when he confesses to being a believer and to praying every day in her bathroom where she cannot ridicule him. The hurt look and explosive reaction Miriam gives him is as if he had just admitted an affair. Her anger, break-up, and subsequent remorse lead her down a snowy road into a collision with her own mortality where her lifelong quest is tested for the true significance it has for her.
Story Number Two that runs parallel to Miriam’s covers some three decades as a zealously devout Connor seeks year-in and year-out to discover if he can find a place in his revered Bible for his gay identity. We meet Connor at the age of ten, with Keith Nobbs immediately capturing in a highly believable manner in this boy who has unbelievable fascination with everything holy. Who at ten has his room full of books about saints, pictures of priests’ ordination, or a collection of scapulars?
As he talks at ten and at subsequent life junctures into his cassette recorder (“I’m going to record everything in my life for future generations”), Connor continues his obsessive probing into even obscure sections of his most-treasured book. At twelve, he tries to recreate building a tabernacle cloth following from the scriptures exactly how many “hands” it needs to be in dimensions (while dressed in his mom’s crazy-colored robe and pink turban). At thirteen, he is visited in his imagination (but very much in our reality) by a outlandishly and royally attired King James (Wayne Wilcox) – one of several historical beings connected to the Bible who show up in his bedroom – who tries to help him understand that the guilt he is starting to feel for who he is, is not about the Bible. “Dear boy, it’s the people,” King James says in his very flowery, Irish accent.
Keith Nobbs also brings his own brand of intensity to the role of Connor, portraying a struggle biblical in proportion as he wants to be faithful to his deep faith and love of his Bible and yet faces parental, scout leader, priest, and his own internal abhorrence for who he really is. We go with him on that journey and witness an actor who captures so amazingly the emotional toll, the psychological strain, and the moment of peak crisis that Connor experiences. But it is when Connor’s and Miriam’s stories eventually intersect that we see both he and Ms. O’Toole at their best in a scene that cannot help but draw tears.
The Bible itself is the star of the third story. Intermingled in both the Miriam and Connor threads as well as existing as its own set of many scenes is the history of the Bible’s conception, writing, translations, and key players. Beginning in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago, we learn from shepherds the importance of remembering and passing on both stories and family histories (and subsequently finally get a better clue why all the “begats” are in the Bible).
Scenes of Syrians learning to write their verbal stories over three thousand years ago, of escaping Jews in 722 BCE carting their scrolls full of stories (and losing some along the way due to fresh figs), and of monkish scribes delighting in drawing cats chasing rats as they pen elaborate copies of the Bible are just a few of the many bits of history we witness. Visitors in costumes of multitudinous eras, ranks, and geographies (as designed with both accuracy and tongue-in-cheek by Lydia Tanji) parade in front of us – invading unexpectedly also the lives of Connor and Miriam – and range from Saints like Peter, Paul, and James to history figures like Nebuchadnezzar, Solomon, and Gutenberg. Along the way we visit the lands of ancient Middle East, the caves of the Dark Ages, and the Catacombs of Rome (all aided by the vast, eye-popping projections and lighting effects of Alexander V. Nichols). And without realizing it, we are students learning a semester’s worth of biblical history without remembering that we ever signed up for the course.
|Elijah Alexander, Lance Gardner, Denmo Ibrahim & Wayne Wilcox|
All those scenes and characters and many more are played by Denmo Ibrahim (Woman 1), Shannon Tyo (Woman 2), Lance Gardner (Man 1), Wayne Wilcox (Man 2), and Elijah Alexander (Man 3) – an ensemble extraordinaire in every respect. Actors also take turns playing instruments of biblical significance (e.g., a lyre, a drum) or using an instrument like an upright piano as a fruitful source for a myriad of sound effects. Their collective abilities to transform quickly to such a variety of personalities and characters – both historical and of the current time – is a show unto itself to watch.
As a person one of whose favorite courses in college was “The Literature of the English Bible,” I lapped up with gusto each new revelation in The Good Book. However, all who live in the current atmosphere of the United States where Bible-referenced promises, accusations, threats, and justifications are heard and read in the daily news cannot help but find Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s The Good Book totally relevant to their lives and immensely entertaining – be they believers, agnostics, atheists, or none of the above.
Rating: 5 E
The Good Bookcontinues through June 9, 2019 on the stage of Peet’s Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA. Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/ or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
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