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.


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

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

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.

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