at the American Theater Company
By Justin Hayford
The Defiant Theatre seems hell-bent on living up to its name. With each new season the company's productions become more outrageous, gleefully flipping the bird at good taste and "professionalism." Even their press releases and programs are full of hoaxes, pranks, and salaciousness; in a brochure announcing the current season, "XX" was quoted as saying he laughed so hard at last season's shows his jaw hurt more than when he was earning cigarettes in prison.
At its best, Defiant's unwillingness to be cowed by bourgeois aesthetics or middle-class morality generates biting social criticism, as in their perverse, subversive Dracula two years ago. More often it leads to good-natured horsing around, as in Joe Foust's Action Movie: The Play, with its never-ending chase-and-fight scenes. But occasionally the company's defiance ossifies and turns formulaic. Ridicule becomes an end in itself rather than a means of examining the hidden workings of society.
Such is the case with Christopher Johnson's Godbaby, an ambitious world-premiere tantrum that condenses 2,000 years of Christianity into two hours. The play begins with a curious moment of semi-Christian mythology as two cavemen battle for an apple, then hurtles headlong to 27 BC, as Roman emperor Octavius is crowned Augustus Caesar. "To solidify Rome's hold of the civilized world," he announces, "we must make the lesser people realize their great fortune in being crushed beneath our boot." Then he draws his dagger and sacrifices a lamb, which whimpers, shakes, and groans to cartoonish excess for a full minute before dying. It's a scene that exemplifies Johnson's theatrical strategy: he offers a moment of historical satire followed by an extended cheap joke. It's a strategy that can work wonders if the satire is pointed and insightful. And in a city full of self-absorbed playwrights who can't be bothered to look out the window, let alone read a newspaper or open an encyclopedia, Johnson's eagerness to turn Western religious and political history into theater is welcome indeed.
But too often Johnson's satire is no more enlightening than his jokes--and at times the two are indistinguishable. He takes a rather awkward gallop through Jesus's life, for example, highlighting a few well-known biblical tales without offering a clear point of view on the man who sets the entire play in motion. Then he stages the four New Testament Gospels as rapid-fire Sunday-school pageants. The gathering of disciples, the working of miracles, the raising of Lazarus, the Last Supper all become stiff and silly--but only because they've been sped up and simplified and are performed in a self-consciously flat style. The same method could be applied to any work--Crime and Punishment or The Sun Also Rises--and produce a similar result. The technique tells us little about the texts themselves, let alone the political forces that conspired to turn these human writings into holy writ. The playwright's critique seems to begin and end with the fact that the Gospels are contradictory, a fact any Sunday-schooler knows.
Throughout the evening Johnson expends more energy making Christian history look ridiculous and hypocritical than he does articulating its meanings and consequences. It's no trick to turn the Council of Nicaea into a silly argument about Christ's divinity or to make Thomas Aquinas's proofs for God's existence seem spurious or to transform any number of popes into pompous, power-hungry monsters. And in Godbaby each historical figure or episode gets roughly the same contemptuous treatment and passes into oblivion equally quickly. Rather than synthesizing his reading of events into a meaningful satire, Johnson just seems to be taking potshots across two millennia.
The play works best when he uses pop-culture iconography to add new meanings to ancient history. He turns Ignatius of Loyola into a James Bond figure, a crafty Jesuit spy with a license to "stem the tide of Protestantism by any and all means necessary." But at times even the playwright's use of pop culture seems indiscriminate. Presenting the baby in the sun from Teletubbies as Emperor Constantine's eternal sun god, for example, or turning the Thirty Years' War into a game of Mortal Kombat may be momentarily amusing but offers little insight.
Director Jim Slonina streamlines Johnson's tumultuous mayhem: this brisk but careful staging keeps the action focused and clear. The 22 cast members dive into the play without apology or reservation, but because their ability to handle farcical material varies, no uniform sensibility emerges, and the scenes feel rather stitched together.
In some ways Johnson's ambition did him in. Taking on just about everything in Christian history left him little opportunity to forge a thesis. He might have done better to create a more specific history--of the papacy, for example, or the Inquisition--following the lead of radical historian Arthur Evans, whose bracing revisions of Christian history are supremely focused. Johnson has proved that he's inventive. Now he needs to put that creativity in the service of stronger ideas.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Arlo Bryan Guthrie.