Wednesday, November 21, 2012

IMAGINARY JESUS • Mustard Seed Theatre

The source material for this play, a novel written in 2010 by Matt Mikalatos, has been adapted for the stage by Mustard Seed's artistic director and director of this play, Deanna Jent, and it's currently receiving its premiere.  During the play, our protagonist, Matt (like the author, Matt), tries to hunt down his "imaginary" Jesus -- a Jesus of his own creation, and find the real one.

We start with our narrator Matt (Chad Morris), who oversees all of the action, letting us in on what is going on inside the head of "the character Matt" (Robert Thibaut).  Matt's having lunch with Jesus (Justin Ivan Brown) at their favorite vegan cafe in Portland, when Saint Peter, or Pete (J. Samuel Davis), shows up and challenges the imaginary Jesus's authenticity.  After a brief scrap with the Savior, Pete goes on to explain to Matt that there are a myriad of imaginary Jesuses out there, and the one that had been Matt's invisible companion for awhile was a fake.

Here the journey begins.  After reliving a few moments of Matt's younger days when he worked at a comic book store, Pete takes Matt to ancient Judea, where they meet up with Daisy (Michelle Hand), a talking donkey, who joins the adventure and advises along the way.  Yes.  A talking donkey.

(Foreground)  Robert Thibaut (Matt),
Justin Ivan Brown (Imaginary Jesus) and ensemble members.
Photo credit: John Lamb
I think it's fair to say that many Christians imagine a Jesus of their own making who conforms to who they would want Jesus to be, and several of these possible characterizations are met during the play.  There's a Hippie Jesus, a Free Will Jesus, a Biker Jesus, an 8-ball Jesus, a King James Jesus, a Political Jesus, and then some.  They're all a part of a Secret Society of imaginary Jesues (or Jesi) who get together to tout their own special qualities.  The play is filled with very funny moments with these Jesuses, but there are some serious moments as well, taken straight from Mikalatos' life experiences.  The tragedy that's revealed serves as the motivational center of the play, and we see how Matt's faith has been shaken.  The second act moves much more slowly, and Matt's meetings become more sobering -- everything from an allegorical exchange with Barack Obama (Kyle Powell) to a somber encounter with the Virgin Mary (Amy Loui).  Although theological ideas are explored more seriously, by this time, the originality of the premise begins to wear a little thin, and the resolution at the end comes off a little too easily.

Kyle Powell, Ben Ritchie (Portland Jesus),
Chad Morris (Narrator Matt) and Robert Thibaut (Matt).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Still, Jent's adaptation produces a lot of laughs and her cast all perform wonderfully beginning with the two Matts.  Thibaut efficiently handles the role of Matt, and Morris makes a smooth Narrator Matt, watching the action play out along with the audience.  Justin Ivan Brown is a charming Imaginary Jesus and J. Samuel Davis brings his characteristic skills as Pete.  Watching Hand take on the role as Daisy the talking donkey is priceless.  She handles the role with ease, whether she's doling out wise advice or chewing on a phone cord.  Nicole Angeli turns in an adept performance as Sandy, an ex-hooker who assists Matt along the way, and Julie Venegoni gives a great performance as Krista, Matt's wife -- sincere in the serious scenes, and particularly annoyed when she learns that the President is coming by for dinner and nobody's cleaned the bathroom.  Speaking of the President, Kyle Powell does a mighty fine Barack Obama impersonation.  The ensemble is rounded out with Roger Erb, Daniel Lanier, Ben Ritchie, Zoe Sullivan, Aaron Orion Baker, Vanessa Waggoner, Leslie Wobbe, Jaime Zayas and Amy Loui.

Julie Venegoni (Krista) and Robert Thibaut (Matt).
Photo credit: John Lamb
Dunsi Dai's flexible set includes these big triangular shaped pieces that can be moved to accommodate various settings, and Michael Sullivan's lighting design beautifully highlights the action, and sets the mood.  Michael Perkins' sound design also adds much to the play, along with JC Kracijek's considerable number of great costumes.

While the second act could stand a little trimming, Imaginary Jesus will give you plenty of entertainment, and it's playing at Mustard Seed until December 2nd.


IMAGINARY JESUS

Written by Matt Mikalatos
Adapted and directed by Deanna Jent 
Mustard Seed Theatre, 6800 Wydown Blvd.
through December 2 | tickets: $20 - $25
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm

Cast:
Chad Morris (Narrator Matt), Robert Thibaut (Matt), Justin Ivan Brown (Imaginary Jesus), J. Samuel Davis* (Pete), Michelle Hand (Daisy), Nicole Angeli (Sandy), Julie Venegoni (Krista) along with ensemble members, Roger Erb, Daniel Lanier, Amy Loui*, Kyle Powell, Ben Ritchie, Zoe Sullivan, Aaron Orion Baker*, Vanessa Waggoner, Leslie Wobbe and Jaime Zayas.
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic design by Dunsi Dai; lighting design by Michael Sullivan; costume design by JC Kracijek; sound design by Michael Perkins; stage manager, Jean Lang; assistant stage managers, Angela Doerr & London Reynolds.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

THIS WIDE NIGHT • West End Players Guild

ChloĆ« Moss based her 2010 play on research she did while volunteering at Cookham Wood prison in Kent, England, but in This Wide Night, prison time is only briefly mentioned -- it doesn't focus on prison life.  Instead, it looks at not only how time spent in prison has affected the friendship of two former cell-mates -- Marie (Rachel Hanks) and Lorraine (Jane Abling), but also how it's rendered life on the outside just as formidable a challenge as life on the inside.  Continuing the West End Players' 102nd season, this play, directed under the sure hand of Sean Ruprecht-Belt, has more than meets the eye.

The play begins in Marie's dreary studio apartment in London.  She has been out for awhile, but still not at all acclimated to her freedom.  She only really gets out to go to her night-shift job at a pub.  One evening there's a knock on her door, and she skittishly answers to find Lorraine.  Lorraine is middle-aged and fresh out of prison after serving a 12 year sentence, and in the midst of getting her bearings, Marie's flat is one of her first visits.

Jane Abling (Lorraine) and Rachel Hanks (Marie).
Photo credit: John Lamb
These two have been out of touch since their cell-time stint together, and there's an immediate uneasiness between them.  Lorraine is eventually invited in, but their conversation is dotted with awkward pauses and fits and starts.  Their adjustment to life out of prison has rendered the closeness they once shared as cell-mates muddled and disoriented.  Over the course of about a week where Lorraine hasn't really moved in as much as just hung around, they continue to attract and repel each other as the memories of their time together in prison, where every moment of their day is dictated to them, are mixed with a sobering sense of missing it, along with their dashed hopes, and the constant struggle to try to maintain their equilibrium.

Rachel Hanks (Marie) and Jane Abling (Lorraine)
Photo credit: John Lamb
Hanks and Abling do a remarkable job infusing these characters with cautious cheer, quiet panic, desperation and compassion -- relaying just as much in what isn't said, as in what is said.  Their dialects are convincing, particularly Abling, who wears hers quite comfortably.  These two performances are bolstered by the contributions of Tim Grumich's detailed scenic design, Chuck Lavazzi's sound design, and Tony Anselmo's lighting design.  The pairing of the sound of rain and the shadows that rain can produce was haunting and effective.  Lisa Haselhorst's costume design also subtly informed both characters.

I remember reading about this play when it opened off-Broadway, and it's always a treat when a local company takes on a show like this one.  Check it out.  It's playing for one more weekend.


THIS WIDE NIGHT

Written by Chloƫ Moss
Directed by Sean Ruprecht-Belt
Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd.
through November 18 | tickets: $15 - $20
Performances Thursday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm

Rachel Hanks (Marie) and Jane Abling (Lorraine)
Photo credit: John Lamb
Cast:
Rachel Hanks (Marie) and Jane Abling (Lorraine).

Creative:
Scenic design by Tim Grumich; lighting design by Tony Anselmo; sound design by Chuck Lavazzi; costume design by Lisa Haselhorst; stage manager, Carrie Phinney.

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