“The Bible –The Complete Word of God (abridged)” features three actors taking on dozens of characters from biblical lore. Costumes fly around the stage as fast as groaner puns. From the first fig leaf, it’s obvious the play is intended as a light-hearted farce.
“The Bible … (abridged)” is part of the sharply pared canon of classics by Reduced Shakespeare, the American company responsible for “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged),” “All the Great Books (abridged)” and similar crowd pleasers. Since its award-winning 1995 premiere at Washington’s Kennedy Center, the play has been performed for audiences all over the world.
But it will not be seen in Delafield. Responding to a wave of protests from fundamentalist Christians incited by right-wing talk radio, the Department of Natural Resources abruptly canceled a version of the comedy that was scheduled to run at Lapham Peak State Park’s SummerStage. DNR officials and SummerStage board members were inundated with threats and complaints from people around the country claiming that the work is blasphemous, according to Amy Geyser, associate producer of Phantom Cicada Theatre Company, the play’s producer.
The production has since moved to Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre, where it’s playing an abbreviated schedule (see listing at end of story).
The furor began when Vic Eliason, the Christian-right host of “Crosstalk” on WVCY, went on a rant against the play after watching a preview on YouTube, he said. “Crosstalk” is heard on nine stations in Wisconsin and 92 across the nation.
For the LGBT community, Eliason is a ghost of persecutions past. In 1990, he outed UPI Supreme Court reporter Julia Brienza as a lesbian after she penned a freelance article on hate radio for the Washington Blade. Eliason hit back with a national campaign attacking Brienza as unfit to work in journalism. Eventually, UPI fired her.
“Christianity has triumphed,” Eliason told his radio audience.
But Brienza had the last laugh. She won an unlawful termination suit against Eliason and UPI, and in 1995 the minister was forced to pay her a $255,000 settlement.
This summer, Eliason’s evangelical activism found a target in Phantom Cicada Theatre Company. Eliason acknowledged that he’s never seen “The Bible … (abridged)” or read the script, but he said the video on YouTube told him everything he needed to know about the play. In that video, an actor portraying Moses descends from Mt. Sinai to announce that he has some good news and some bad news: The good news is that he negotiated God down to just 10 commandments; the bad news is that the ban on adultery is still on the list.
Eliason told WiG he was not amused to see adultery treated as a joke at a time when broken families are imperiling society and sexual sin is rampant. “There’s a certain aspect of respect that people show to other religious traditions, but it’s open season on Christians,” he said. Eliason went on to lament that while people get beheaded in Islamic countries for ridiculing the Koran, Americans can spoof Christianity on public property with impunity.
It’s SummerStage’s location on public property that got his dander up, the minister said. “We talk a lot about the separation of church and state, but it’s OK if you’re going to mock (the church),” Eliason said. “We didn’t want to stop them from performing the play. Our concern is that it was being done on state property with tax-payer dollars.”
Eliason’s crusade against “The Bible … (unabridged)” was taken up and amplified by far-right radio host Mark Belling of WISN 1130. He’s denounced the play on the air at least twice in recent weeks, Geyser said. Like Eliason, his primary objection centers on staging what he contends is an anti-religious theatrical work on public property.
But others, including the ACLU of Wisconsin, have the opposite perspective. Director Chris Ahmuty is concerned that in ousting the production, DNR used a particular religious view to limit free speech on public property. He’s investigating whether to file a legal complaint over the incident as a free-speech violation.
“How far this goes could depend on how fearful SummerStage is about losing their contract for next year,” Ahmuty said.
Meanwhile, DNR claims that the play was not cancelled due to religious pressure at all, but rather because of a clause in the SummerStage contract that stipulates all productions must be “family-friendly.” DNR officials cited promotional materials for the production recommending it for audiences over 13 years old as evidence that the play is not appropriate for children.
But with no nudity or violence, “The Bible … (abridged)” falls squarely in the family friendly category, Geyser insisted. Her group’s warning was based solely on concerns that younger children would not understand the humor and be bored, she said.
Ahnuty agreed with Geyser that the “family-friendly clause is just a pretext for censorship.”
“If (Eliason and Belling) don’t want to go see it, and if they want to tell their friends not to go because they think this is blasphemous, that’s fine,” Ahmuty said. “But for DNR to cave – and apparently it didn’t take much persuasion for them to cave – that’s a real problem.”
The angry reaction that the play elicited from Eliason and Belling marks a first in its 17-year production history, according to Geyser. Elsewhere even religious audiences have warmly received the play as an affection spoof that might actually raise interest reading in the Bible.
The Catholic Herald, for instance, gave the play a positive review, opining that “the almost nonstop chaos is suspended during occasional moments of quiet and respect: one while reciting Psalm 23, another during the Passion.”
Throughout history, religious extremists have condemned as blasphemous art of all types. Right-wing evangelists railed against Cecil B. DeMille’s blockbuster 1956 version of “The Ten Commandments,” which is filled with sex, violence and campy humor.
Gay film buffs have practically made a parlor game out of quoting that film’s excesses, such as the scene in which actress Ann Baxter, playing Throne Princess Nefertiri, exclaims to Charlton Heston’s beefcake, scantily clad Moses, “Oh, Moses! Moses! You stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” Or the scene in which the Moses approaches a well in the desert and the daughters of Jethro howl in delight, “A man!”
Yet mainstream Christians and Jews view the DeMille epic as good, clean family entertainment that promotes traditional religious awareness and values. The promoters of “The Bible … (abridged)” view their play in the same vein.
As religious right extremist groups have grown in number, so have their attempts to censor art they view as objectionable. Ironically, even before Eliason’s assault on “The Bible … (abridged),” the ACLU of Wisconsin had signed up as a lead sponsor for Skylight Music Theatre’s upcoming production of “Avenue Q” to underscore the organization’s support for the First Amendment’s protection of free speech in artistic expression.
“Avenue Q” features a band of trash-talking, Muppet-style puppets who belt out such songs as “The Internet Is for Porn.” One of the longest running shows in Broadway history, “Avenue Q” won multiple Tony Awards but went on to stir controversy during productions in other cities.
“The controversy over ‘The Bible … (abridged)’ illustrates exactly why we’re partnering with Skylight on ‘Avenue Q,’” said ACLU of Wisconsin development director Kristen Hansen. “We believe it is not the job of the government in any form to tell people what they should see.”
The Thurs., Sept. 20, performance of “Avenue Q” will be a fundraiser for the ACLU. For tickets, go to forwardforliberty.org/aveq.
(Editor’s Note: Wisconsin Gazette is the show’s primary media sponsor).
Next Act Theatre, 255 N. Water St., presents “The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)” on Aug. 31, on Sept. 2 and then from Sept. 7 to Sept. 9. For tickets, call 414-278-0765 or go to www.brownpapertickets.com.