Sunday, July 29, 2007

"Please, just bring back the funny Jesus."

Crhist works the crowd in Grünewald's Isenheim altarpiece.

It's rare that a Boston Globe review actually makes me see red (I'm just too jaded) - but perusing Katie Johnston Chase's review of "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years" in Saturday's edition made the whole world turn carmine. I don't recall seeing Chase's byline on a theatre review before - so let's hope this is both its first and last appearance. She was sent to cover Abie Philbin Bowman's one-man show at Jimmy Tingle's Off Broadway Theater (because, I'd guess, as in my days at the paper, it was deemed a political hot potato, so no one with any clout was going near it) - and even Chase admits, the show has "a wonderfully simple premise: that today a bearded religious martyr from the Middle East . . . would be deemed a terrorist." So far, so good - and Chase gives Bowman high marks for his comic licks (which actually don't sound all that inspired), such as "how hard it is to eat M&Ms with holes in yours hands."

But uh-oh - when Jesus ends up in Guantanamo, Chase writes, the show "veers into dangerously serious territory." Did you get that? Dangerously serious. "Before you know it," our nonplussed correspondent whines, "we've lost the mood." But wait, she gets (unintentionally) funnier: "Clearly, Philbin Bowman is knowledgeable about what he calls the un-Christian conditions at the camp [emphasis added] . . . but we didn't come here for a lecture."

So Katie went to a show called "Jesus: The Guantanamo Years" for a laugh, only it turned out to be a total downer! Bummer! Especially since "we don't need to be hit over the head with the problems of Gitmo; we already know." Chill, dude - we already know about the torture of innocents! It's time to move on - moral outrage is like so pre-9/11! "There must be a way," Chase insists, "to maneuver through Guantanamo without derailing the show." Uh-huh. Maybe Bowman should page Roberto Benigni for tips.

Make 'em laugh . . . Jose Padilla tries out his stand-up routine.

But Chase's best, and most offensive, line simply has to be her admonishment to Bowman for getting so 'dangerously serious': "Please, bring back the funny Jesus."

Disgusting as it is, there's something pregnant about that phrase. Please bring back the funny Jesus. It's an unconsciously deep encapsulation of a generation's attitude, dontcha think? I'm sure Katie had her ancestors in prior eras ("We already know about the Gulag, Aleksandr! Enough already about Auschwitz, Primo!"), but would the earlier water-carriers for oppression have so openly expressed their longing to be released from responsibility? Please, just bring back the funny Jesus! PLEEEEEASE! This is the cry heard everywhere - please, don't tell us about it, we don't want to know! Or at least make it funny - give us an out! Don't say we've built a secret prison system in which innocent people are tortured! And don't tell me I'm paying for it!! I mean, sure, let's laugh at religion; let's laugh at Bush! But don't implicate me in what's going on - I'm just the audience, for chrissakes! This is a show, can't you understand? I mean it's totally cool to like be against what's going on, but it's totally uncool to actually do anything about it - so please, bring back the funny Jesus!

Sigh. Needless to say, Katie's review evidences no cojones whatsoever - but has anyone noticed the literal lack of balls in the Globe's theatre department these days? In the old days, local theatre reviewing was dominated by closeted theatre queens (Kevin Kelly, Arthur Friedman) - they were hardly models of political integrity (many of them were slow to approve color-blind casting, and were often hypocritically dismissive of openly gay material), so I'm hardly nostalgic for their reign of error. Still, the new feminine generation (in which all the genders have changed, but maybe not all the orientations) is arguably doing even worse, especially given that we're in the middle of a political crisis that makes Watergate look like a garden party. As I recall, Louise Kennedy once even opined that an Iraq War documentary at Trinity Rep was "successful precisely because it avoids polemic, on either side." Right - tell it to Brecht. Or Pinter. Or Shaw or Ibsen or Shakespeare, for that matter. Oh well. I suppose it's pointless to hope for political balls at the Globe arts page - but some actual balls (even some straight ones!) might be nice.


  1. Hi Thomas,

    Once again, I think we agree pretty much, but I think I am a just a little more sympathetic to the reviewer in this case.

    I have received the press and read the ads for the show, and there is really no doubt that the overall impression is that the show is comedy act. Whether of not this is intentional or not, I have no idea.

    It is reasonable to assume that audience members going into the show will expect they are getting a comedy, and it appears as if the show starts off that way as well. So, the fact that the show "veers off" very substantially into darker territory is something I believe a daily reviewer should be pointing out, even highlighting in the review, right?

    That said, I will agree that the divergence in tone seems to have left this reviewer incapable of assessing the merits of the actual work in front of her. (Not to mention the larger issues of the current climate.)

  2. Really, Art, you're too "sympathetic" IN GENERAL! Let's just say that any audience that truly expects to be "entertained" by a "comedy" about Guantanamo - while the camp is still in operation with our tax dollars, and while its inmates are committing suicide in their cells, or desperately seeking any legal recourse to escape it - is rather horrifying. I know people will howl at this, but I'm not sure even the Nazis would have worked up a sitcom about Dachau, yet this is essentially what Ms. Chase and the Globe are suggesting Mr. Bowman do. It's a strange, gutless shamelessness that I find almost as frightening as active evil. Of course the Globe has moved on to even more intriguing moral territory by promoting pedophilic "outsider art" in their Sunday edition. What's next?

  3. "I know people will howl at this, but I'm not sure even the Nazis would have worked up a sitcom about Dachau, yet this is essentially what Ms. Chase and the Globe are suggesting Mr. Bowman do. It's a strange, gutless shamelessness that I find almost as frightening as active evil."

    No howling here.

    (By the way, according to the adminstration's newspeak department, the suicides were just another example of the enemy's "assymetrical warfare?")