In the beginning, there was the word. And it was the playwright's. And the actors said the word. And the audience watched and heard the word. And if the word was good, the audience clapped and stood and felt justified for spending $60 a ticket and missing Larry King.
So what is the word on In the Beginning, the Bible-based play that's the latest at Dallas Theater Center? Unfinished. That is the word. And that is not good, though the show, at 90 minutes with no intermission, is good and short, leaving plenty of time to get home for most of Anderson Cooper and all of SportsCenter.
No playwright, no script, no plot and no ending, or no specific ending for this piece, created by the cast and DTC artistic director Kevin Moriarty. Just 14 actors, the first 10 chapters of the Old Testament, a flash of near-nudity (Adam and Eve in flesh-colored bikinis), a few strangely juxtaposed contemporary songs and, to wind it all up, 20 minutes of forced back-and-forth with the audience about what it all means.
This is no biblical epic. They have barely waded into Genesis before it's time for us to make an exodus.
In the Beginning is not terrible, nor is it "monstrous," as I heard one theatergoer mutter as he hit the lobby opening night. It's just not there yet.
There are great things and great big things in this show that are every bit as visually and technically impressive as Moriarty's production of The Who's Tommy last fall. The muscular scenery by Tony Award winner John Arnone plants three tall black monoliths covered in gold Hebrew script at the back and sides of the stage. Arnone has covered the circular revolve with gritty earth, over which the performers sometimes appear to float barefooted. And more than the actors, the lighting by designer Steve Woods depicts the creation of the universe. When God says "Let there be light," Woods hits the space with washes, splashes, beams and pools of painterly illumination.
The acting is fine all around too. This is the first DTC production to feature all nine members of the new resident acting ensemble. They, along with half a dozen SMU drama students, play multiple roles in In the Beginning, alternating as God (yes, even the women). Cedric Neal as Adam, Chamblee Ferguson as the Creator and later the redheaded snake in the Garden of Eden, Sean Hennigan as Noah, Liz Mikel as, well, the big black lady who stops the show with a gospel number ("Precious Lord, Take My Hand," sung twice in an hour)—all give well-paced, thoughtful performances. Sometimes during the chats directed at the audience, a few of the actors seem to shrug as if to say, "Hey, this wasn't my idea," but they're subtle about it.
So what major sins does this show commit? To begin at the beginning, its casual attitude is almost too slack to grab our attention right away. The performance starts with the house lights still on and the cast walking out in street clothes to line up A Chorus Line-style downstage. "God loves stories just as much as we do," says Chamblee Ferguson by way of introduction. The actors take turns talking about how the performance was conceived. Moriarty first thought they'd do an adaptation of medieval mystery plays based on Bible stories. Too boring. So they went back to Genesis, reading and rereading it. They spent a couple of months in workshop mode to create their own presentation based on the earliest Old Testament highlights: the creation, Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, the begats and Noah and the ark.
For advice on interpreting the text, Moriarty called in priests, rabbis, ministers, professors of history and literature. Their observations on Genesis became lines interjected between the Bible-based scenes in the show. That stuff turns heavy and lecture-y at times. "God is not alone at the beginning of creation," we are told. Then another character offers an opposing view. Oh, no, he wasn't. Oh, yes, he was. They point out parts of Genesis that seem contradictory. Were Adam and Eve created simultaneously? What about that "helpmate" description of Eve? Hasn't that verse been used to let men lord it over women for two and a half millennia?
It never really feels polished, and yet In the Beginning is highly theatrical in the ways we've come to expect at DTC. Changed into loose white pajamas, the actors appear and disappear into fog like streams of ectoplasm. The original music by the Broken Chord Collective adds keyboard runs and warm guitar strums behind the recitations. Pop music is used in odd but interesting ways—Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" sung mournfully as Cain kills Abel—and there are some effective stretches of silence, as when Adam and Eve comfort each other after losing their son. Not such a good choice, the cliché of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" for Adam's intro to Eve. (What, they couldn't get the rights to "Witchy Woman"?)
When Noah leads his family onto the ark, indicated by the lowering of a wide wooden gangplank, rain falls from the heavens. When the flood stops, the stage goes dark against a galaxy of twinkling stars.
And just as it's getting really engrossing, clunk. The acting, storytelling, entertaining portion of the evening ends abruptly. "And that's as far as we got in the rehearsal process," says actor Matthew Gray, stepping out of character and coming to the edge of the stage as the lights come up on the audience. Those may not be his exact words. Being jolted out of Noah and the Great Flood, it takes a few moments to readjust. People don't know whether to applaud or not. Everything just stops.
The actors then invite confused theatergoers to answer a few questions based on what's just been performed. Microphones are handed out. And for 20 minutes or so, there's supposed to be a—what?—lively exchange of ideas? Argument? Altar call?
Moriarty is a believer in the "conversation" that he wants his productions to start among audience, actors and playwrights. The director likes the after-show talkback and held them last fall after every performance of Tommy and The Good Negro. (Presumably none were necessary after A Christmas Carol.)
There's arrogance, however, in asking the audience not only to excuse the lack of a cohesive ending but actually to provide it. DTC subscribers have shown resistance to provocative material in the past. God knows what some of them will think of a show that not only questions people's beliefs about the Bible, but tells them to throw out their notion of what an evening of theater should be.
Moriarty has been bold to do so much new work this season. Let's hope that in the future he continues to redefine what theater is, for performers and those they perform for. He definitely has a vision that's different, exciting and a little scary for a community used to the comforts of Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare and other familiars.
God continued to tinker with his creation after his first week on the job. So let's not judge Moriarty et al too harshly for starting the year with something that seems like a work in progress. There's enough in what they already have to satisfy many, and somewhere in the run, they might figure out what they're doing.
Whatever Moriarty and his company have begat with In the Beginning, it just be-gots to have an ending better than the one that it be-has.