‘The Good Book’ Review — Biblical Time-Travel at Court Theatre

Kareem Bandealy, Alex Weisman, Emjoy Gavino, Jacqueline Williams, Allen Gilmore (floor)

Do superior production values guarantee superior theater? If so, then “The Good Book,” a world premiere at Court Theatre, is sure to satisfy. From its striking, minimalist set to its engaging cast and a standout performance by Alex Weisman, “The Good Book” promises to entertain audiences while enlightening them about a subject of wide interest, the Bible. Indeed, with acting and eye candy this appealing, what more do you need? My curmudgeonly reply: a more sophisticated script, for one thing.

 

Emjoy Gavino, Allen Gilmore, Kareem Bandealy, Erik Hellman


 

That is not to say that the concept behind the play is unsophisticated. Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, the creative team who won a well-deserved Obie in 2012 for “An Iliad,” aren’t afraid to tackle daunting subjects and experiment with fresh approaches. “Writing a play about how the Bible had evolved into the most important book in western world” — to quote Court Theatre artistic director Charles Newell — certainly qualifies as gutsy.

 

Hollis Resnik


 

For this commission, the first in Court Theatre’s 60-year history, the University of Chicago offered up scholarly resources that included discussions with Divinity School Dean Margaret Mitchell, who may have served as the inspiration for one of the two chief characters in the play, the biblically named Miriam (played by the formidable Hollis Resnik), a present-day Biblical scholar experiencing a crisis of faith. Miriam is smart, tart and pedantic enough to piss off her students, particularly the crucifix-wearing Bethany (Emjoy Gavino, one of five actors playing multiple roles).

 

 

Jacqueline Williams, Kareem Bandealy, Emjoy Gavino, Erik Hellman

 

Miriam’s lectures would not be enough to sustain a play were it not for O’Hare’s and Peterson’s most successful device: time travel. The outlined doorways in Rachel Hauck’s sleekly designed set serve as portals to key moments in the creation of the many-authored book that we know as the Bible, transporting the story from 1800 BCE Mesopotamia to the creation of the King James Bible in 1611 — with Erik Hellman, in one of several parts, as the king himself, a vision in red brocade (costumes by Linda Roethke). Kareem Bandealy, Allen Gilmore and Jacqueline Williams play scribes one minute, apostles the next. Mike Tutaj’s effective projection design keeps the audience abreast of when and where we are. Co-playwright Lisa Peterson directs with clarity.

 

 

Alex Weisman, Allen Gilmore

 

These threads are lightly entertaining and educational enough — like auditing a course on religion where you’re not required to do the heavy reading — but they aren’t so very different from a class of very talented Sunday school students putting on a show. Even Miriam’s crisis of faith feels artificial, a little like Scrooge’s flight through time with the Ghost of Christmas Past. And at nearly three hours, the show might benefit from some judicious cuts, especially in the second half.

 

 

Alex Weisman

 

But where there is faith, there is hope. The salvation of the “The Good Book” is its second major character and Miriam’s foil: 15-year-old Connor, a wannabe priest conflicted about his sexuality in the suburban repression of 1975. In a tour de force performance as Connor, Alex Weisman steals the show with his deadpan comedy and captivating vulnerability. Weisman rewards our faith in theater.

 

 

 

 

 

Photos: Michael Brosilow

 

 

 

The Good Book

 

Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago (free garage parking evenings)

 

Through April 19, 2015

 

Tickets: $45–$65 (discounts for students, seniors, military, U of C faculty/staff) at Court Theatre or (773) 753-4472

 

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