It started with “An Iliad,” a riveting stage adaptation inspired by Homer’s epic about the nightmare that is war — a bravura one-man show that suggested why this work is not just at the foundation of ancient Greek culture, but of all of Western civilization.
So where can you possibly go from there? Well, if you are actor Denis O’Hare and director Lisa Peterson — the brainy and imaginative team with a flair for transforming classic texts into scripts of theatrical gold — you head straight to the Bible.
And so it is, as “The Good Book,” their decidedly original take on the Old and New Testaments, receives its world premiere at Court Theatre. Specially commissioned by Court (where “An Iliad,” directed by Charles Newell, enjoyed highly acclaimed, sold-out runs duringthe 2011 and 2013 seasons), the work is less about the actual stories in the Bible than about how these texts originally came into being, and about how they are being interpreted in our own time.
‘THE GOOD BOOK’
When: In previews; opens March 28 and runs through April 19
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Tickets: $45 – $65
Info: (773) 753-4472; www.CourtTheatre.org.
During a rehearsal break a couple of weeks ago, Peterson and O’Hare, who have known each other since they were part of the Chicago theater scene of the late 1980s, chatted about how they devised “The Good Book,” drawing on their own backgrounds, as well as consulting closely with Margaret M. Mitchell, Dean of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, a noted scholar of early Christianity.
Peterson grew up in California where, as she put it: “At the urging of my grandmother, and a mother who played piano for the classes, my brother and I dutifully attended Congregational Sunday School.” But what she describes as her “real conversion experience” came with a high school production of “Godspell,” after which she joined the Methodist church. It was a short-lived enthusiasm, replaced by a passion for theater and an undergraduate education at Yale University.
O’Hare confesses to being a devout Catholic from the age of five until 17, attending Catholic school for 12 years in suburban Detroit (early on with the Franciscans, who he loved, and later with the Christian Brothers, who “beat us up”). He even considered becoming a priest, but in his early teens he saw productions of “Show Boat” and “Carousel” that got him far more interested in theater. He eventually headed off to Northwestern University, “while also growing a beard, reading the existentialists and gradually becoming an atheist and an actor.”
“Then, about nine years ago, I got so angry at how religion and the Bible were being used in this country to condemn me as a gay person that I wrote a pamphlet, and began handing copies out in the New York subway,” said O’Hare. “It was at that point that I also decided I should actually read the Bible if I was to go into battle with these people. The irony is that most Catholics don’t really read it, except during mass, and they get their wisdom primarily from the Pope and their priest. So I started with the New Testament, and then went back to the Old Testament, trying to get friends interested in joining me, but ending up reading it out loud by myself each night.”
That is why when Newell, the Court’s artistic director, asked Peterson and O’Hare: “What’s next?,” the Bible immediately sprung to mind.
“The Good Book,” directed by Peterson, and featuring Kareem Bandealy, Emjoy Gavino, Allen Gilmore, Erik Hellman, Hollis Resnik, Alex Weisman and Jacqueline Williams, is no Technicolor, Cecil B. DeMille retelling. Rather, it weaves stories of devotion and conflict into their very own creation myth — one in which human faith and divine inspiration intersect. Among its characters is Connor, a teenager struggling to reconcile his identity with his dream of becoming a priest, and Miriam, a modern-day Biblical scholar in New England who is childless, and having a midlife crisis about her legacy. Along the way — in a story that moves from ancient Mesopotamia, to medieval Ireland, to suburban America — the two explore how the Bible itself was constructed.
Alex Weisman (left) and Allen Gilmore in “The Good Book” at Court Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
As Peterson explained: “The idea that Martha [Mitchell] led us to from the start was that the Bible is not really a book as we ordinarily think of it, but a grab-bag of texts. So the questions became: How did it become the monolith we now know? What were some of the major events behind its creation? How did it evolve from its earliest ‘pre-language,’ oral tradition to its current place as an app on your iPhone?”
“We look at the structure of the Old Testament and its relation to the Jewish people, and the role of King James in the New Testament. And we suggest the many human hands that have had a part in its creation over the centuries. The Bible is really a book of argument that is forever talking to itself. And our goal is to show all the arguments that went into its making, along with the poetry, music and sociology of it. What has come to excite me most about the Bible is the way it reflects the collective mind that made it. And of course it raises the question of why humans need faith — which is tied absolutely to our mortality, and our need to order the universe around us.”
And what’s next for Peterson and O’Hare? Nothing less than a show about the rise and dissolution of the Roman Empire.