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Review: ‘In the Beginning’ at the Dallas Theater Center

by Jerome Weeks 28 Jan 2009 4:06 PM

Liz Mikel in In the Beginning Lawson Taitte’s review in The Dallas Morning News UPDATE: Mark Lowry’s review on Theater Jones UPDATE: Arnold Wayne Jones’ review in the Dallas Voice UPDATE: Ed Townley’s review for Pegasus News Feature story on In the Beginning: The Genesis of a New Drama A front page story in the […]


Liz Mikel in In the Beginning

A front page story in the Dallas Morning News about the development of the Dallas Theater Center‘s show, In the Beginning said this new adaptation of the Book of Genesis was taking a risk of “biblical proportions.”

Staging even a half-way serious, half-way sensitive look at Genesis? In an area with some of the largest Christian churches in the country? Unless there’s outright blasphemy onstage, it’s hard to see how In the Beginning would be anything but a treat for a North Texas theater’s box office. Given the sorry-sword-and-sandal quality of many Bible films (and not just the heathen Hollywood treatments, it’s true of many of the Christian-market movies as well), it’s not surprising that the intelligent faithful would be hungry for a dramatic production about Genesis that addresses the text and its quandaries in anything like a serious inquiry.

As noted in my report on In the Beginning, which opened Tuesday, the new Theater Center show is not simply a staging of the first ten books of Genesis. It relates the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, and intersperses commentary drawn from some 14 local clergy and scholars. In effect, In the Beginning replicates the loose investigatory process that director Kevin Moriarty and his new acting company underwent to put it on, right down to the asking of questions and the leaving of some of those questions unanswered.

What we get, then, is akin to a discussion-and-dramatization by an earnest but overly eager-to-please minister and his class of friendly students. Any Bible show that ends with Liz Mikel, Cedric Neal and Hassan el-Amin leading a chorus of “Precious Lord” is not one that’s going to hold surprises or cause much consternation. Mostly, this is easy-access, feel-good Biblical exegesis.

If there’s anything challenging or risk-taking here, it would be in the overall, multi-cultural sensibility of the show. This is so contemporary-conventional and soft-focus that only the most rock-ribbed traditionalist (or segregationist) could object. But then, we are in Dallas. Adam (Cedric Neal) and Eve (SMU student Abbey Siegworth) are a mixed-race couple, for example, and God is played by everyone in the ensemble, so at different times he’s male, female, black, white or Hispanic. He made us all in his image(s), after all.

This no-conflict sensibility obtains in what is said as well. The consideration of differing interpretations is weighted or open-ended in such a manner that it all cancels out or washes over the audience. Certainly, individual points are thought-provoking. I had not noticed, for example, that the long lives of Adam’s immediate descendants get shorter for each subsequent generation — as if humanity deteriorates the further we get from Creation. Or the idea that the murderous dispute (above) between Cain (Lee Trull) and Abel (Micah Figueroa) was not simply sibling rivalry. It can be seen as a religious difference (God accepted one offering but not the other).

But for the most part in this show, one exegetical interpretation is offered, it’s countered by its opposite or a distracting, different one — and off we go, with those two points negating each other.

So there is no strong viewpoint here or none that’s extensively explored, just the overall ‘balanced’ sensibility I’ve already noted. We get a multiplicity of voices and the hope that, in this Tower of Babel, we’ll respect each others’ opinions. Well and good, although not really the makings of great drama. And that spirit of goodwill was soon tested in the opening night’s “talk back” section when one audience member rather simplistically compared Andrea Yates, the Houston mother who murdered her children because ‘God told her,’ to President Bush, who invaded Iraq because ‘God told him.’ You could hear the intake of breath throughout the theater. “Oh, puh-leez” was one disgusted mutter from the row behind me.

This is why theater companies often avoid religious topics: As inspiring and loving as faith can be, it also is essentially exclusionary: Jesus brought a sword, he said. And if I believe this, and you do not, then there must be some consequences — otherwise, what’s the point of believing at all?

That’s a chief reason In the Beginning feels well-intentioned and relatively unengaging. It wants to address faith while not really delving into the whipsaw forces that often motivate it or are released by it. This timidity is particularly evident with the declaration (in the program and onstage) that the show means to treat Genesis as a “literary” text, a tradition that goes back to the great German scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries, who first brought to bear rational analysis (the “higher criticism”) to the Bible. They did so, precisely because they wanted to remove issues of religion and faith from the discussion. Here, with the repeated “literary text” statement, it sounds like “No offense intended!” — when it would be difficult to imagine someone taking offense from much that’s said anyway. After awhile, one even feels hungry for a bit of fiery, stand-and-deliver preaching.

The commentaries do provide comic relief. The show tick-tocks between them and the absolutely serious Biblical re-enactments. Director Moriarty approaches these scenes in one of two tones: either full-on portentous (with a narrator intoning the words like Jahweh) or as a musical theater number, which is where his real instincts lie. He never manages to create a high-kicking chorus line or 11-o’clock number, of course — more’s the pity — but he does often get a moving, slow ballad or duet going, as with Christina Vela singing “Hurt” over Cain’s murder of Abel. And then there’s the final, full-ensemble rouser with “Precious Lord” — but only after we’ve been forced to endure the audience “talk back” as part of the show (this Bible class comes with a quiz?). It could have easily been relegated to the end. Kudos to Matthew Gray, however, for his easy-going control of Tuesday’s session.

But it should be emphasized that In the Beginning is not un-affecting. Setting the creation of Adam to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” seemed hokey to me — initially. But it turns out to be wonderfully moving. Having Sean Hennigan sing it in his weathered baritone while Christina Vela (God in this scene) lies on the ground and shapes Adam from the dirt conveys an aching, sensual longing in the physical act of creation. Many of the Adam and Eve scenes are lovely as well.

In fact, visually, In the Beginning is often beautiful. The set by John Arnone (the Tony Award-winning designer from Dallas) is strikingly austere and simple: Three giant black blocks dominate the turntable-equipped stage. They’re like 2001 monoliths (recall that in the film, the alien monoliths first appear at the ‘Dawn of Man’) or they’re like the stone tablets God gave Moses. These are even inscribed with the Hebrew opening of the Bible in formidable gold letters.

Of course, all of what I’ve written here can be dismissed as the anti-religious bias of a hardened, wishy-washy, Zen-agnostic whose capacity for faith was overwhelmed by his talent for doubt long ago. So I will testify to what I do believe in:

  • I believe that Kevin Moriarty’s eagerness to ingratiate himself with his new community may not always work to his advantage or to the material’s. The opening prologue, for instance, when the entire cast stands and basically explains what we’re about to see and how it came about, descends to the level of a middle-school Intro to Theater class. At one point, individual actors actually declare that “I am not really a rabbi” or “I am not a theology student” — as if theatergoers might think otherwise. (“I am not a doctor but I play one on TV”).
  • I believe John Arnone — with a lighting designer like Steve Woods from SMU — can make anything look good, even synthetic mulch.
  • I believe in the power of great live theater. I believe that actors with the voices, the skills and the stage presence of Liz Mikel, Sean Hennigan, Chamblee Ferguson, Cedric Neal, Sally Nystuen Vahle and Christina Vela can make me believe just about anything onstage. For an hour or two, at any rate. And if I don’t believe them, I still enjoy them.
  • I haven’t seen enough of Hassan el-Amin, Matthew Gray and Lee Trull to make the same declaration about them. Nonetheless, I believe that Kevin Moriarty has shaped a fine company of actors.
  • And I believe that the company should take on something bigger and deeper and perhaps more dangerous than this little chat-and-sing about Genesis. I look forward to next year, when the acting company officially starts, when the DTC finally enters the Wyly and when the theater’s season might be weighted with a major classic drama worthy of their talents.

Photos by Brandon Thibodeaux

  • Jim

    There were moving moments. For instance, the heartache of Adam and Eve as Cain is exiled reminded me of a parent I know who has had to kick her son out of the house. But the explication from local theologians was decidedly undramatic and undercut the power of the stories themselves.

    Even if the piece was not entirely satisfying theater, it was successful as an act of community engagement. The audience talk-back, where black folk and white folk from decidedly different religious (or non-religious) traditions shared their thoughts with one another was a very good thing for this city. I think Moriarty wants to use the DTC to benefit this community.