In its 18-year history, Amphibian Stage Productions in Fort Worth has developed a reputation for championing new plays and playwrights that are fun and quirky. One play was such a crowd pleaser during its first run that Amphibian has received letters asking for it to be revived. Its subject matter may surprise you.
Artistic director Kathleen Culebro says when Amphibian first produced The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged) in 2013, she was nervous about how it would be received in the Bible Belt.
“I learned quickly that it's a perfect fit," Culebro says. "As soon as it closed, church groups, longtime Amphibian supporters and newcomers into our fold were begging us to bring it back."
The play was co-written by the founders of Reduced Shakespeare Company, the same group that wrote The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor have a knack for narrowing down extremely long and complicated swaths of text into tight comedy.
The Bible is the third in a series of about 10 “complete works” plays written by the trio. Others include 1992's The Complete History of America (Abridged) and 2013's The Complete History of Comedy (Abridged).
The Bible adopts a vaudevillian style. A cast of three takes the audience on a highly condensed trip through the good book to tackle the great theological questions. Two original cast members, Brandon Murphy and Scott Zenreich, are returning this go-round.
Aaron Fouhey is the sole new cast member joining the production, replacing Luke Longacre. Texas native Jay Duffer will return to direct.
Murphy says reprising the role four years later is a strange sensation.
“My mind did not really remember much of anything, yet I found myself able to stand in the right places and say all the right things without much rehearsal. So it's an odd familiarity, which makes it kind of fun," Murphy says. "You get the good time of running through all the bits without having to put in a lot of the hard work with learning lines and choreography.”
Zenreich says it's a joy to do it all over again, and it helps to have the insight of what worked before. At the same time, a new cast member changes the dynamic significantly.
“Aaron is making different choices than Luke," Zenreich says. "The play's comedy is very much based in the relationships between the three of us, and it's creating new moments and jokes that are exciting. I think it otherwise would have been easy to fall into the trap of doing what made people laugh in 2013.”
Why is the play so popular?
“It’s the Bible,” Murphy says. “People in Texas are pretty big fans.”
That keeps the cast members on their toes. Murphy recalls a line in the show in which the cast asks, “How many people have read any portion of the Bible?” and then a follow-up question to determine who in the audience hasn’t read any of it.
“We are supposed to act like we've got our work cut out for us because no one has read the whole thing," he says. "Well, there’s some audiences in which half the people claim to have read it cover to cover, so sometimes you have to alter that joke on the fly.”
Murphy says those audiences really just want to see some of the stories brought to life. They really seem to get the jokes tailored for the well-read Bible crowd.
“And they also don't seem to be above some of the lower-brow offerings ... of which there are many,” he continues.
Zenreich says that since The Bible's Amphibian debut, many of the jokes in the show have been updated to reflect contemporary celebrity culture and political climate — the latter of which has some pretty stunning biblical relevance.
“It's hard to believe that last time we did the play we were talking about Wendy Davis filibusters and how racist Paula Deen was,” Zenreich says.
At the end of the day, the stories told in the show are familiar to all of us, regardless of beliefs. Now that he's had four years to contemplate the show’s success, Zenreich feels he has figured out why it works.
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“I think people really like this show because, no matter your personal beliefs, the Bible and its stories carry a lot of weight and importance," he says. "Having three clowns acting out the whole thing in two hours is an ambitious exercise, and the way we do it is so silly that you can't help but laugh. The jokes and musical numbers are rapid fire, and some are smart and some are really dumb, but there's a lot of heart there.”
“It’s a dumb play, but it’s oddly satisfying,” Murphy jokes.
Zenreich jumps in: “Plus, I play all the women in the Bible, and one thing I know is that audiences really like a guy in a dress. Or a lot of dresses.”
The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged); 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; Friday, July 7, through Sunday, August 13; Amphibian Stage Productions, 120 S. Main St., Fort Worth; $33, amphibianstage.com.