The chicken and the egg

Posted on 29 Jan 2009 at 3:30pm
By Arnold Wayne Jones Stage Critic

Genesis gets a makeover (not always a good one) at DTC; kid-lit goes Left at DCT


I went into "In the Beginning," the Dallas Theater Center’s world premiere, newly-minted retelling of Genesis from first light to flood, with a mix of dread and hope. Not a believer myself, I was curious whether Dallas’ most established theater company, probably with the most blue-blooded subscriber base, would be able to pull off a play of Bible stories without pandering to the "Passion of the Christ" crowd. Religion is a thorny topic even among many like-minded friends; could it somehow become a play that was both relevant and balanced enough to get divergent philosophies excited about theater?

That’s a tall task, but this isn’t the first time director Kevin Moriarty has tackled sacred texts with a profane sense of the theatrical. His version of the "Jesus Christ Superstar," which I saw a few years back, made the already-slightly-scandalous rock musical even darker. I wasn’t a fan of "JCS," and while "In the Beginning" starts off with some promise, by then end it simply has no point of view, no purpose. As a coffeehouse rap session among college juniors, it’s passable, but as theater if leaves you in the dark.

There are many innovative and daring decisions that Moriarty makes that bespeak that twitchy energy that made his staging of "The Who’s Tommy" such a singular accomplishment last fall. The rle of God is played by each of the 14 actors in the cast: gay, straight; while, black, Hispanic; male, female. If you thought this would be a safe bet for Bible Belt theater, it is far from that.

Unfortunately, it’s also far from fully realized. God may have created the heavens and earth in seven days, but the script to "In the Beginning," such as it is, is as shapeless as the void of nothingness in chapter 1 of Genesis.


Four components make up the text: direct quotations from the Bible itself, transcriptions of commentaries provided by a series of interviews with local clerics and theologians (including the Rev. Jo Hudson of the Cathedral of Hope), contemporary songs (from Nine Inch Nails to Roberta Flack) and, most questionably, the opinions of the audience itself, which spends 20 minutes stepping up to microphones to weigh in on the proceeding as if they are on "The Jerry Springer Show," trash-talking the bisexual Wiccan dwarfs onstage.

Aside from the unusual casting (for instance, Cedric Neal as a black, nearly naked Adam), the use of modern music is the element most likely to whiff of sacrilege from the devout, and it almost works. The idea to use "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" as a metaphor for God’s love of mankind is inspired, but why have Sean Hennigan croaking out the verses when you have some real singers in the cast?

But then the finale — a gospel number sung by with clarion revival-tent brio by Neal, Liz Mikel and Hassan Al-Amin — smacks of the axiom from "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me" in which having a "big black lady stop the show" is Broadway’s lazy way of ending a poorly-constructed scene. The vocal performances are searing and gorgeous, but they can’t mask the inherent weakness that led to using the song as a closer in the first place.

You can’t blame the actors for doing anything wrong. Matthew Gray is given the show’s most thankless job — he moderates the monstrous Q&A with the audience — but employs a brilliantly light touch; Chamblee Ferguson’s expressionistic performance as the Serpent conjures slithery temptation with minimal accessories.

But neither are they served by the play itself. Often, they are costumed in silly-looking skins and frightening wigs, and forced to engage in nearly laughable stage business (as Adam holds aloft his son, I fully expected a chorus of "Circle of Life" from "The Lion King").

Everyone’s trying their best, event the audience members who offer their opinions with muddled sincerity (on opening night, one speaker — who actually had the most cogent observations — was roundly booed by a Republican faction). I get Moriarty’s idea of promoting a dialogue between artist and audience, but a literal dialogue as part of the fabric of the play? Eventually, "In the Beginning" crumbles upon itself like the Tower of Babel.

Alfred Hitchcock famously said actors should be treated like cattle, which is exactly what director Doug Miller gets to do with "Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type," now at the Dallas Children’s Theater. Actually, only two actors are cows (Deborah Brown and Cara Statham-Serber); one is a hen (Maxey Whitehead) and another a duck (Brian Hathaway). (Only Willy Welch gets to be a human.) But what a militantly sweet-natured barnyard they make.

Militant? Isn’t this children’s theater? Well, sort of. "Click Clack Moo" has to be the most revolutionary piece of kid-lit since "Heather Has Two Mommies." The cows, hen and duck are engaged in a kind of cold war: They are at war with Farmer Brown because they are cold. Taking their cues from Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Karl Marx and George Orwell, they plan a leftist revolt, going on strike (no milk or eggs) until they achieve social justice. (Think Chik-Fil-A ads with Black Power fists raised, and you get the idea.)

The production is performed with aw-shucks delight by the entire cast. The songs, while less than memorable, bounce along happily. Laurie Land’s costumes almost steal the show. As Cow #2, Statham Serber is bedecked in a Patty Hearst-style beret and with chains on her udder than adds a vaguely S&M quality; Duck is dapper in his ecru "duxedo;" and Hen is ruffled in feathery petticoats.

Does such subversiveness belong in a kids’ show? You bet it does. The DCT clearly represents the current political climate in the age of Obama: Cows, Hen and Duck represent change you can believe in.

"In the Beginning," presented by Dallas Theater Center. Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Through Feb. 15. Dallastheatercenter.org.

"Click Clack Moo: Cows That Type," presented by Dallas Children’s Theater. Rosewood Center for Family Arts, 5938 Skillman St. Through Feb. 22. 214-740-0051.

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