Friday, February 17, 2017

Letter from the Earth: Phoenix Theatre nails the Deity in "An Act of God"

Not sure what the technical glitch (clearly intentional on the part of the Phoenix Theatre tech team) was that gave an opening-night audience "legendary local character actor" Scot Greenwell as an emanation, or incarnation, or embodiment of God Himself in "An Act of God" Thursday night.

You'll have to forgive me for my confusion on how to describe the substitution. Human theological language is mostly opaque to me. I should say right off that, coincidentally, I was there as a representative of regular blog critic Jay Harvey. As an angel, though not among the higher orders — my application to either Dominions or Thrones is under consideration — I am pretty well qualified to stand in for any human observer of the celestial scene. I daresay Harvey cannot make that claim.

First off, I have to declare that David Javerbaum, the author of "An Act of God," has some startling insights and intuitions about Himself. You can see for yourself on weekends through March 12 at the Phoenix, whose current home used to be a church. I find that charming, given this production.

Scot Greenwell convincingly doing some God-splaining.
And Greenwell is a dead ringer for God. Of course, since man was made in God's image, just about anyone would be, right? But that gets into theology, and I've already implied I would avoid that as much as possible. So let's just say that Greenwell is outstanding in a play in which Himself tirelessly presents a revision of the Ten Commandments and talks at great length about his motivation and achievement. He wraps things up by presenting an entirely new vision of Creation, which I guess quaint human custom would advise me not to reveal here. God Himself hasn't always been conscientious about spoiler alerts. Not that I'm bragging.

Under the direction of William Fisher, the actor exerts a firm hold on our attention from the start. He certainly held mine, and I'd never conceived of Himself being anything close to "legendary local character actor" Scot Greenwell. This is part of the magic of theater, which God in this play assures the audience he loves. People eat that kind of thing up: If they know God loves what they love too, they feel reaffirmed. The audience couldn't have been happier at the end, though I wonder if the final divine directive was bound to co-opt the slightest resistance. But my lips are sealed.

Greenwell is given lots to say, and he seems fully invested in all of it. As God, he has His moods, and He has a sense of humor, with great timing. Irony is not His strong suit, yet 21st-century humans like to interpret a lot of what God says and does ironically, and Javerbaum plays to that tendency brilliantly. When I'm sent down here on my occasional errands, distinguishing between irony-impaired and irony-dependent people is the hardest thing I have to do.

Archangel Michael won't take divine guff.
Everybody knows from Genesis that God is quite verbal. He felt the need to announce a lot of what He created over those six days, and unless He meant for us angels to overhear him, He was talking to himself, or Himself. Subsequently, as the Bible records, He chose His words carefully but always had a way of making them stick. Presented with an opportunity to justify divine injustice, He went on and on to Job (the play reminds us), becoming as beside the point and abrasively defensive as Kellyanne Conway.

Yes, I'm up on current events and pop culture,  as is Javerbaum's God. Omniscience entails an allusiveness as extensive and au courant as Shakespeare's. (They're neck-and-neck as to who has more footnotes.) The play's God also presents an up-to-date take on the first human beings — not particularly clearing anything up, but rather setting perpetual confusion upon a new platform, IMHO.

Archangel Gabriel attends to the sacred text.
Himself's talk about His "mysterious ways" seemed a little smug and evasive to me, but we hear that in Heaven all the time. It's one of the God cliches He says He hates. That wasn't the only point during Thursday's performance that I heard low murmurs of agreement from the audience. And there was plenty of laughter, too. This God really likes his human creatures, wants to amuse them when appropriate, and seems in this play to blame Himself for many of their failings. Well, it's about time, a survey of my colleagues might find. Just sayin'.

Michael certainly thinks so. Played here by Joshua Coomer, the patron angel of Israel tightens the rhetorical thumbscrews on Himself several times, with understandable frustration, even ferocity. Once, he gets a wing lopped off for his pains. He is of course in character to bring up the Holocaust, among other ills besetting the Creation. Nimble Michael also fields questions from the audience, which have an inevitability to them. It's nonetheless risky, as when the current U.S. President calls on reporters not from FoxNews or Breitbart.

In contrast, Gabriel (Michael Hosp) stays at an onstage lectern, some distance away from blowing the last trump (I've picked up the nasty human habit of naughty puns). He's devoted to the Good Book and the Heavenly Record. At the end of the show, the archangels join Himself in an uplifting trio that conveys God's parting message.

These dutiful, slightly edgy inner-circle angels have been splendidly outfitted by Sara Gable on a multilayered set (designed by Phil Male, and lit with just the right amount of dazzle by Michael Moffatt).  Michael is more working-class celestial; Gabriel projects archangel chic. White dominates, of course, and the apt accents and exquisite detail on all three figures made me feel right at home.

Questions and issues that have vexed human beings for millennia are addressed with magnanimity. Impressively, Himself takes a detour through the Valley of Tender Parental Regard in talking about Jesus, his headstrong middle child. On the whole, though, Himself is currently miserable. If He wrote a personal ad to humanity, it would no longer say "ISO LTR." Yet every time there's a one-night stand, a new cult religion gets founded.

But you'll have to discover for yourself why God might come to such a wary, weary conclusion. It will be worth your while. Speaking personally, this show put me in touch with the better angel of my nature. Maybe I could even make Seraphim! That would be awesome, if you'll allow a rare, suitable use of that word.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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