Divine inspiration

Divine inspiration

CLU students rework biblical satire

By Jenny Lower 10/06/2011

In the beginning, before Trey Parker and Matt Stone penned their scorching religious satire The Book of Mormon, there was a three-man comedy improv troupe from California known for compressing ponderous, serious subjects into snappy, hilarious takedowns. Before Parker and Stone had HIV-infected Ugandans shaking their fists at the Lord, the Reduced Shakespeare Company presented the Lord himself, demanding that Abraham hand over certain protective tissue. After all, what else was God going to stitch his wallet out of?

As many years old as Jesus had apostles, the Company’s The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) may already seem tame in a post-South Park world, but California Lutheran University students are making it new again with an updated Black Box Theatre production. The show runs one weekend only, from Oct. 13 to 16.

The Black Box series is a student-run and directed theater cycle on campus. In the past, selections have dealt with topics like suicide and teenage homosexuality. Later this season, they’ll perform Tennessee Williams’ one-act Suddenly Last Summer.

The show marks the first full-length production directing opportunity for Martin Gonzalez, 21, a junior, who has done theater his whole life. He split up the lines to accommodate five actors, including two women, one of whom (junior Bryana Gable) plays Jesus. Gonzalez also undertook the huge task of updating the script, which calls for jokes to be modernized according to current pop culture.

That process meant drawing on his actors’ sense of humor, inserting allusions to Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. The cast also did improv exercises like running through the entire show without a script to warm up for their roles. As a result, “it’s going to be a different show every night,” says Will Cowles Meyer, 18, who plays Abraham and one of the three wise men.

Cooper Smith, 18, has performed since elementary school and previously had a stint doing improv at the Laguna Playhouse. The freshman plays the majority of the female roles, including Eve and Salome, the Old Testament seductress who ordered John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

“It’s not really a plea for attention,” Smith says, to chuckles from his castmates. “I actually try to play the characters and not just get cheap laughs out of them.”

The play runs about an hour and a half and covers classic Old Testament stories familiar to most secular audiences, such as Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, David and Goliath, and Noah’s ark. But when it came to inserting new gags, perhaps the biggest struggle was knowing how far to take it.

CLU is a private religious school with a dry campus and voluntary weekly chapel. Some students involved with the production call themselves religious; others do not. Michael Arndt, chair of the theatre arts department and the production’s faculty advisor, said the administration exerted no control over the show’s content or feel.

“I encouraged the students to explore the script in ways that make it relevant to their own generation. They acted as their own censors,” Arndt says. “We have never shied away from controversial plays if they had content that created intellectual discourse. Hopefully this production will contribute to that dialogue.”

Smith says that while the play does include some occasional “whoa, there” language, most of it constitutes “valid satire.” Everyone has invited their parents, and a few are even flying in for the occasion.

No one seems to be fretting over what Mom and Dad will think, but then again, Cowles Meyer says, “I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people.”   

The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged) wil run, Oct. 13–16 at the Black Box Studio Theatre at California Lutheran University, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. For information, call 805-493-3415

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