Playwright, actor and director Jay Duffer was last seen in North Texas playing religious rebel/reformer Martin Luther in the brainy David Davalos comedy Wittenberg, and he’s back again at Amphibian Stage Productions for another faith-based frolic, the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged). This time around Duffer is the director, and the show opens July 11 for a one-month run in Fort Worth.
The style of this tasty “reduction” will be familiar to anyone who knows the RSC’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). Beginning with skits written and performed on the Renaissance Faire circuit in the early 1980s, the Reduced Shakespeare guys have taken a fast, funny zip through some of the hallowed-est halls of the Western tradition. Shakespeare, America, Wagner’s Ring cycle, sports, Hollywood, and even Christmas—nothing is safe from the writing/performing team of Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor. And in this case, the target isn’t just one of the Great Books—it’s the Good Book itself.
TheaterJones chatted with Duffer about the show, mining comedy from the Bible and working at Amphibian.
TheaterJones: What was your first experience with the Reduced Shakespeare Company?
Jay Duffer: As a college theater professor, every once in a while I’m invited to judge a high school theater festival. And that’s actually where I first saw the RSC’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). Even with high schoolers, non-professionals, it was such good, funny material; I couldn’t stop laughing. So that was my first brush with these three guys.
I did many, many years of sketch comedy in New York when I was directing a group called Freedumb. We did a lot of social and political satire, and so I think Kathleen [Culebro, Amphibian’s Artistic Director] thought I was a natural fit for material like this; it feels a lot like sketch comedy, as opposed to the typical play.
The RSC has a longstanding tradition of going after the Really Big Topics in people’s lives and working them over—for laughs, of course.
I think they will take a look at anything that might have a large canon of work and say “OK, this gives us a lot to make fun of; how are we going to do it in two hours?” If you are the least bit familiar with the Bible, you’ll get it. If you were raised in Sunday school, you’ll definitely get it, the jokes will land. And if you’re very familiar with the Bible, it even gets more hilarious, I think. But I think it will ring true and funny for anyone, even if they have just a little “common knowledge” about the Bible.
Taking comic shots at the Bible—in the Bible Belt—used to be considered a dangerous line of work. Are you sure we’ve gotten past that?
Oh, I think so. If we can’t laugh at ourselves in all aspects of our lives, then what’s humor for? And also, it’s never blasphemous, and I think these guys are aware of that. In fact, when the show’s been done in the past quite a number of Bible study groups have come to see it. It’s certainly tongue in cheek, but in no way is blasphemous or crosses any serious line, particularly among conservatives. It might make some people a little uncomfortable, which is fine. That’s what good humor should do.
Would it help if we tell them you went to Baylor?
[Laughs] Possibly—and we could add that I teach at a small private Christian liberal arts college. If I’m not afraid to tackle this stuff, then no one should be.
The last time you were at Amphibian in 2011, you were playing an iconic religious figure, in fact. Is there a theme here?
Yes, that must be when Kathleen thinks of me—she brings me in for the religious stuff—but oh, yes, playing Luther in Wittenberg was a fantastic experience. That’s a strength with Amphibian that I admire: they don’t want to do plays that are saturated, that anybody would know. They choose plays that enlighten and challenge the audience. And this is that kind of show: oh, I’m going to see a play about the Bible, and they’re going to make fun of it, and that makes me slightly uncomfortable. Well, I think that’s one of the components of theater: it sets you off edge, and then if you find “hey, I’m laughing at this, and I came out alive—and undamaged!” you’ve had a great experience.
As the director of a piece like this—you have three actors and a total chaos of scenes—are you even trying to find a normal sort of dramatic architecture for it? What are you doing as the director, if it’s not rude to ask?
Obviously, as director, I want to bring a good quick pace to it, make sure it’s cohesive in terms of design and execution; and really, hiring these three guys who already have great comedic gifts makes my job easier. [Luke Longacre, Brandon J. Murphy and Scott Zenreich play a cast of, er, Biblical proportions.] It’s a matter of trusting them and the text, and letting them fly off their impulses. I find myself more of an editor than a creator; I give them their blocking, and see what kind of magic we can all find within that. I have plenty of input—this might be funnier, let’s try that instead—and also the [original] script still has some jokes in there from 1995, so it’s been fun for us to update things.
You’re doing topical additions?
Oh, sure, using whatever relevant information comes our way. Right now, we can get plenty of fodder from Kanye West and Paula Deen.
You’ve written plays that have dealt more seriously with religious themes. What’s the bigger challenge, do you think—to treat religion seriously in theater, or to do it comically?
I think it depends on the style, and how it’s presented, certainly. But these are great questions that the Bible poses. What’s life about? What’s our life about? Who is God? How does he interact with us? Does he still interact with us today? These questions can be a platform for serious drama and great comedy too.
Beyond it’s being funny, the great thing about this script is it forces us on deeper levels to ask ourselves, one, why do we believe in such outlandish stories; and two, how can people interpret the same story so differently—one looks at a Bible verse this way, another in a very different way—and there you have it, different religions. So I think we can laugh at our own ineptitude as compared to the mysteries of God. This is much more a comic reflection on human folly and our own foibles than it is any sort of attack upon God.
The Reduced Shakespeare shows aren’t exactly highbrow, but they are smart in their own way, aren’t they?
Well, there are moments of sophisticated humor—grant you, they’re few and far between, it’s definitely a romp—so if you’re expecting sophistication like a Tracy Letts comedy, you’re not in the right place. There’s so much zany physicality in it. And these writers get a kick from being totally anachronistic, and pulling in as many gimmicks and sight gags and jokes as they can. There’s a lot of sexual innuendo packed into it [it’s the Bible, duh!], but I think it has something for everyone in a PG-13 sort of way.
◊ The Reduced Shakespeare Company has a series of podcasts on its website, and in a fairly recent one, they discuss taking Bible to Australia. You can listen to it here.
◊ Below is a series of promo videos Amphibian produced. Each cast member talks about his favorite Bible story.
Brandon J. Murphy: