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SIDESPLITTING RELIGION: ‘Bible … (Abridged)’ brings everyone to the word of God with a lot of comical relief

Panache Theatrical Productions lives up to their name with their latest offering: “The Bible The Complete Word of God (Abridged)” by Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor.

Panache Theatrical Productions lives up to their name with their latest offering: “The Bible The Complete Word of God (Abridged)” by Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor. The Long-Martin-Tichenor collaboration is perhaps best known as the Reduced Shakespeare Company and have spawned abridgments of The Bard, Christmas, American history and sports, among other topics. It’s a pretty replicable set up of three guys: A scholar (Jamey Stone), an idealist (Anthony Lawson) and an average guy (Randy Davis) discuss a topic. For this evening, it is the Bible.

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Act 1 addresses The Old Testament, which seems like a logical beginning. The appearance of a nude cast minimally covered in fig leaves, accompanied by the theme music from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” really sets the tone for the evening. All at once the audience is confronted with the majesty of creation and the absurdity of the results.  In an effort to legitimize their efforts, the performers each present their research material: Randy beginning  with the Gideon Bible; Jamey has Asimov’s “Guide to the Bible”; and Anthony has the children’s edition, in which everything ends happily ever after—not something the citizenry of Sodom and Gomorrah would agree with, if asked. The thing is, Anthony’s character is so joyful about everything, so filled with glee and innocent excitement that it is really painful for the other two guys to burst his bubble, and even more so for the audience to watch it.

Randy’s character is a little more forgiving of Anthony’s inclinations, partly due to his own experiences in Sunday school (hence his love for the story of Noah and the flood: God can be merciful, kind and loving).

Jamey’s character seems just stumped by the two of them. In theory it should—or could be—a legitimate discussion, but they each seem to have their own agendas. His character tries to knit everything together into a cohesive whole but has to watch it get torn apart repeatedly (no corollary with Biblical scholarship there…). He zings around the possible ways to approach the subject, but my favorite was when he succumbed to his inner summer camp Rabbi and began accompanying himself on guitar.

Anthony’s rendition of Leah in the story of Jacob and Rachel and Leah, concluding how God only loves pretty people, is actually quite moving in a humorous way. Perhaps that’s the secret to the show. The script and performers use zany humor to shine a light on some pretty deep and powerful aspects of the human experience. It’s the logos Randy is getting at, with his love for the story of Noah.

Don’t get me wrong: There is plenty of slapstick goofiness to go around. The Tower of Babel scene (which looks like the wicked step child of Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lily?”) is a sidesplitting rendition of the story that includes Anthony having an affair with a Japanese-speaking Jamey.

Humor can be a very effective teaching tool. The song for differentiating the Elijah and Elisha is actually pretty darn brilliant, as Jamey and Randy guide the audience with cue cards. The audiene will never get them mixed up again (and might even win a question or two on “Jeopardy!”).

One of the hallmarks of the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s material is a strong reliance on audience participation. This show is no exception. If ever there were three guys who could make embarrassing yourself on stage in a room full of strangers fun, these three men are it. They do, over and over again, from distributing loaves and fishes or stocking the ark. Time after exuberant time, they showcase overwhelming joy and embarrassment, which can go hand in hand.

Act 2 looks at The New Testament (mostly) and includes the highlight of the show: The Last Supper. The three performers unroll and hang a vinyl banner of Da Vinci’s famed painting … but with the faces cut out. It is like the wooden cut-outs at the circus wherein attendees can pose with their faces poked through for a picture. What ensues with the three of them acting all 13 parts in The Last Supper, while running from face to face, is really too funny for paper. One has to see to believe.

“The Bible … (Abridged)” is a props-heavy show with a lot of sight gags—actually so many sight gags that Carrot Top must feel envious. Randy Davis’ garage must look like “The Da Vinci Code” exploded in there, if he has been storing these items for the last 14 years (as his program bio states). But the bits like The Last Supper or the severing of John the Baptist’s head wouldn’t work without the right visual pieces.

My friend Nancy Richardson once commented that, for her the Apostles’ different relationships with Christ were each different paths to experiencing him and his word, for people would hear the call differently but ultimately journey to Him. That’s really what the take-away from this show was for me. Yes, it is very funny. Yes, all three performers give the audience a night of entertainment to remember. Each character, each performer approaches the material differently. The journeys do lead to the same destination.

What Rabbi Hillel is supposed to have answered a student when challenged to teach him the whole of the Torah while the student stood on one leg: “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.”

Or as Matthew 7:12 KJV is credited: “Therefore, all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”

Art can be used to illuminate, persuade, unite, or divide. Panache’s production watches three people struggle and reckon with division, but ultimately find a way to unite and to bring the audience closer through shared joy, empathy and even learning. That’s a lot for one night of theatre. Frankly, without a lot of skill, timing and comedy, it wouldn’t work at all.

But it does.

The whole show comes together for one seamless and incredibly funny evening. Grab a ticket, if just to never confuse Elijah and Elisha again.

DETAILS:
The Bible: The Complete     Word of God (Abridged)
Through May 20, Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
Tickets: $20
N. Front Theatre • 21 N. Front St.
www.panachetheatre.com

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