Back in 2011, and then again in 2013, Court Theatre presented one of the best shows I've seen on a Chicago stage: An Iliad. Building on Robert Fagle's English translation, adapter/deconstructors Denis O'Hare and Lisa Peterson turned Homer's Trojan War epic into a bravura solo (performed by Timothy Edward Kane) that not only retold one of the founding stories of Western civilization but sent it vibrating up through the generations, into our time, and across our spines.
So imagine how happy I was to hear that O'Hare and Peterson had turned their attention to another essential document—the Bible—with the results set to run at Court in a production featuring an all-star ensemble led by Hollis Resnik and Alex Weisman.
Now imagine my disappointment on seeing said production only to find that it possesses none of the spirit that made An Iliad so unnervingly great. The problem isn't that The Good Book takes a different narrative approach than An Iliad did, or that the authors clearly regard the Bible more warily than they did Homer's saga. (A healthy wariness is more than justified, given the company the scriptures have kept over the years, from Torquemada to Ted Cruz.) Nor does it have to do with Peterson's direction, which is smart and sharp and consummately theatrical in a way that recalls Angels in America.
The problem is the authors' refusal to enter into their subject's universe, literal or figurative.
For all that O'Hare and Peterson bent The Iliad—sharply—toward their own ideas about war, they also made plenty of room for both its resonance as a landmark and its power as a yarn. They let it be told. Indeed, they let it be told by an apparently immortal Poet who was as magnetic as he was mad. Nothing of that sort happens in The Good Book. The title turns outs to be sneeringly ironic. The three-hour show is a debunking.
The two central characters are familiar 21st-century tropes—Connor the gay Catholic teenager and Miriam the disillusioned biblical scholar—whose common task is to overcome their psychic enslavement to pretty much everything between Genesis and Revelation. Their adventures are intertwined with what amounts to an elaborate lec-dem, illustrating how ancient Mesopotamian tribal lore got codified into the text we know and like to bludgeon people with today. The Torah is dismissed out of hand, and rather creepily, as a conspiracy engineered by diaspora rabbis. The New Testament's provenance is chronicled mainly through a series of burlesques. God? Hah.
I don't have political or religious objections to any of the above. I know how bad the good book can be, and I have no stake in the myth of divine revelation. What bothers me is that the angry tack O'Hare and Peterson have taken this time precludes the possibility of discovering what's truly human in the Bible. With its contemporary story line and its enlightened ideology, The Good Book is fine in a preaching-to-the-choir way. It's just that I hoped for more. v