Friday, June 9, 2017

"An Act of God" - Public Theater’s Divine Comedy

Marcus Stevens in "An Act of God"

You can leave your preconceived notions of God outside the door of the O’Reilly Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh. While you’re at it, abandon all images of a gray-bearded old man with Walt Whitman-like wisps of long hair and a serious visage. Or Michelangelo’s rendition on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

In playwright David Javerbaum’s "An Act of God," you get a younger, more animated and, yes, psychologically transparent rendition of the Almighty with a bit of fey and camp thrown in for good measure.
The premise of this hilarious and, yes, at times silly, sometimes thought-provoking  comedy, is that God has channeled himself into the person of Marcus Stevens, an actor well known to local audiences and trained at Point Park University who’s gone on to distinguish himself on and off Broadway and elsewhere.

God’s motivation - to introduce ten new and improved commandments to his worldwide flock. It seems he’s grown tired of the old ones much like "Don McLean has grown weary of ‘American Pie,’" He says.
In his corporeal form, He announces them one by one on a minimal stage from a white couch at the top of a stairway to heaven surrounded by clouds and flanked by two archangels, Michael and Gabriel (Tim McGeever and John Shepard), two celestial sidekicks fitted with a pair of white wings that flutter as they walk.

As God, Stevens gleefully expounds on each commandment and sets right some of mankind’s misconceptions of the Creator’s intentions and motivations. Remember the sneering joke about Adam and Steve? There may be more truth in the concept than first believed.

In this laugh-filled spoof, the iconoclastic playwright also includes interesting takes on the power of prayer, the concept of God working in mysterious way and His role in assuring celebrity and sports star success. (After seeing the play, you’ll probably cringe the next time you see some Oscar-winning actor thanking God for his or her talent or some football hero attributing his winning touchdown to will of the Almighty).

On the other hand, Biblical strict constructionists and Creationists will probably find relief on His explanation of evolution, but much of the narrative is revolutionary enough to raise the eyebrows of Born Agains and the Orthodox. I can only imagine what might have happened to the playwright if  "An Act of God" was staged in the era of the Inquisition or the Pilgrim and Puritan settlement of New England.

Beneath the comedy, satire and cynicism is another layer of theological and epistemological food for thought creating a play that entices and entertains on two different levels. One highbrow, the other not quite as lofty

Basically a one-man show for much of the  90-minute run, the archangels do manage to get in some playtime.
As Michael, McGeever rolls through the audience taking questions that are really pre-scripted, so don’t worry about being tongue-tied when asked to ask God a question. As Gabriel, Shepard is the more serious and servile of the two, reading text from a {faux} Gutenberg Bible resting on a nearby podium when needed and concurring in God ‘s pronouncements like some ethereal lackey.

Even God it seems has His prickly flashpoints and, when provoked by prying questions from Michael, raises His ire with the crack of thunder (a la sound designer Zach Moore). Mention Hell and the set is enveloped instantaneously with a dark red hue, the work of lighting designer, Andrew David Ostrowski, who works other miracles with light throughout the show..

Javerbaum’s version of God actually admits to having anger management issues and when asked why he permits suffering admits he’s "a jealous, petty, sexist, racist, mass-murdering narcissist" — just like the human beings He created in His image. "

Talking points run the gamut from the trials of Job to the partnership He forms with Steve Jobs. With the latter, He’s about to launch Creation .2, a revamped world without pain, suffering and death where everyone will live an immortal life discovering, learning  and enjoying.

Director Ted Pappas seems to bring out Steven’s inherent impish playfulness that gives his God a refreshing quality at odds with our status quo conceptions. Credit the playwright, who once wrote for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, for honing his craft to the point where comedy (with gray matter stimulation ) approaches the sublime, if not the divine.

"An Act of God," a production of Pittsburgh Public Theater, is at the O’Reiily Theater in Downtown Pittsburgh through July 2. For tickets, phone 412-316-1600 or visit website www.ppt.org.

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