Dallas — Life’s a beach party and then a whale swallows you.
Playwright Len Jenkin’s take on the eco-friendliest Bible story in Sunday school is a 100-minute storm of Hawaiian shirts, mermaid skirts and foot-high tropical cocktails served up inside a scalloped circus tent designed by John Arnone around Undermain Theatre’s iconic/infamous concrete columns.
Step right into the universe according to Jonah, where we hear doo-wop, gospel and bluesy folk tunes conveying the fitful prayers and praises of the chosen, the damned, the pregnant and the funky musicians who accompany them on the beach and in the belly of the whale. It’s a party, it’s a cruise, it’s a commandment from the playwright to have a hell of a good time because the world is bright and sexy and the ways of God are not just mysterious, but downright Old Testament neurotic. Sometimes, the story of Jonah seems to say, God’s just messin’ with you to test your faith—or whatever.
Director Katherine Owens brings the play’s storylines together in a kind of swirling tornado, so bits of each tale are sucked into a central theme exploring the surprising resilience of love in an unpredictable and largely mysterious cosmos, and the grand gesture of forgiveness, whether human or divine. Heavy stuff, but embodied in a cast of nine sharp, energetic actors sharing the load, the play whips along like a twirling kaleidoscope, defying conventional time, and merging modern street stories into ancient Bible tales. The crackheads and stoners from a cruise ship bar shape-shift easily into the half-naked satyrs and assorted sinners in the streets of Nineveh, which brings us to the beleaguered title character.
Jonah, played by loose-limbed Jonathan Brooks careening between cravenly fear and muscular optimism, is a loose canon in a port city. He’s hanging out in an abandoned church, dodging any serious commitments, and drinking and dancing the night away with seductive cruise ship lounge singer Sheila. Embodied by slender, seriously curvy Kelsey Milbourn, Sheila sings an alluring “You Belong to Me,” although it’s not immediately clear who she’s addressing in this ’50s hit.
An old blind prophet-poet type called Mr. Bones (a heavy-jowled, grizzled Jeremy Schwartz), stumbles along with a cane, but longs to waltz across the “grand ballroom of the cosmos.” Meanwhile, he bitches in his basso voice about his hard-luck life, and accuses a frazzled convenience store clerk of over-charging him for his Jujubes candy. The clerk Terri (a spunky, frantic Courtney Mentzel), pleads on the phone to her delinquent boyfriend to help because she’s late getting her period, and all he wants her to do is collect money he’s owed by some guy living in a belfry.
Meanwhile, a biblical scholar named Rhodes (a pale, Patrick Bynane) has had a stroke and suddenly left off ranting about God and the wicked Assyrians, and stares mutely at his anguished daughter Mary Margaret (beautiful Katherine Bourne in patient nurse mode). She reads him the children’s book Toad in the Road to reintroduce the Word—as it was in the beginning. Sugar plum beach bum Dabby (a cut Marcus Stimac with a Roman nose and a randy beard) helps with the shaky old prof because he adores his pretty daughter.
Oh, and there’s the luscious Lady J (Whitney Coulter, brimming with femitude) the hottie waitress on the cruise ship and practicing pirate queen who rocks out with Jonah in his escape mode.
Just like the Bible says, God stirs up a storm to drown everybody because Jonah, that no account coward and womanizer, refuses to do His will and go preach repentance to the sinners in Nineveh. What we don’t know is the outcome for all the luckless passengers and crew that sailed out to party until they hit land.
The fun of a Len Jenkin play is in the wild mix-up of the cocktails and characters operating in a time-warped space where Rhodes scholars and pirate Jezebels stomp to “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and fervently sing “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown.” They shake, writhe, and wax poetic to accordions and guitars and even an oboe and cello.
Bruce DuBose designed the sound-in-the-round, and plays God in a white suit, a sun king mask and gold-sequined sneaks, while puffing on a cigar. He also gives a deep, velvety voice to the whale, and steps in with the other musicians, Paul Semrad and Rob Menzel, sucking on his harmonica when the mood gets bluesy.
Owens directs a moveable painting, colored with glittering, clever costumes by Amanda Capshaw, the excellent ensemble shifting and fluid. The show is mesmerizing while you watch—and evocative long after you have left the theater.
» Read our Work in Progress column about Jonah