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Bible thumping 

Do local theaters 'get' religion?

When born-again Christian Frances (Jen Apgar) takes center stage in Five Women Wearing the Same Dress currently running at Marietta's Theatre in the Square, she asserts pride in her faith and objects to the ridicule she receives from her non-religious friends. On opening night, her words twice got an "Amen!" from someone in the audience, evoking the call and response of a church sermon.

That moment hinted at how a playhouse and a house of worship can favor each other, and how the relationship between religious faith and artistic expression can be strained. Numerous plays in the Atlanta area are highlighting both the cooperation and the tension between the secular and the spiritual, the sacred and the profane.

Considering plays that address religion or faith, the first that come to mind are critical ones like Arthur Miller's witch hunt The Crucible or Moliere's attack on hypocrisy in Tartuffe. In 1998 Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi, which suggests that Christ and his disciples were homosexual, received a death threat and thousands of protesters following its London and New York debuts. (If it opens in Atlanta, be very surprised.)

The Amen-sayer from Theatre in the Square probably would feel under siege at Horizon Theatre's The Bible, The Complete Word of God (Abridged), an irreverent romp through the Old and New Testaments that employs kazoos, super-soakers, sock puppets and Viagra jokes. The Reduced Shakespeare Company's script stresses that it means no offense to any particular faith, but also parenthetically points out the paucity of tolerant moments or favorable images of women in The Good Book.

Director Jeff Adler says that Bible, however light-hearted, has more going on than just parody. "The show's three characters each come fortified with their own reference material: one has the King James Bible, one has Isaac Asimov's scholarly guide to the Bible, and one has the Children's Illustrated Bible. There's a tension over which one provides the best presentation of the Bible story, instead of just having fun with it."

Jewish Theatre of the South's Cantorial begins with a comic premise worthy of Blithe Spirit, as a yuppie couple moves into a former synagogue, only to be haunted by its late cantor, who incessantly sings liturgical music. (The baritone belongs to Isaac Goodfriend, Cantor Emeritus of Atlanta's Ahavath Achim Congregation.) Cantorial's comedy proves less compelling than the obsession with restoring the synagogue that seizes non-Jewish Warren (Joe Knezevich). While not addressing God head-on, Cantorial offers a glimpse at the zeal of a convert, as well as a primer in the rituals and architecture of synagogues.

"By our name you'd think we're more directly religious, but predominantly what we do is culturally Jewish," says Mira Hirsch, artistic director of Jewish Theatre of the South, one of about 30 theaters belonging to North America's Association for Jewish Theatre. "Only recently have we felt comfortable enough to do more plays that deal with religion, even though it's not our mission to do so." She points to the serious spiritual themes of last fall's The Golem and the humorous look at orthodox roles in last spring's Kuni-Leml.

Just as much of JTS' work is culturally Jewish, cultural Christianity becomes more overt between Thanksgiving and New Year's, when many theaters present holiday shows like A Christmas Carol, in which the spiritual content tends to stay at the margins.

Hirsch acknowledges that staging plays with overt spiritual messages can be more problematic than JTS shows like Groucho: A Life in Revue (which are the ones that attract more non-Jewish audiences). "I don't do them as often, because a.) there aren't that many that are that good, and b.) it's riskier, particularly in regard to your own community, to deal with aspects of religion. It's risky when you portray a religious character if the person isn't of the highest esteem, or if you get it wrong."

Hirsch suggests that if playwrights like Christopher Durang can seem antagonistic to religion, they're just doing their job. "It's the nature of theater to deal with conflict of any sort," she says. "But I think that in general, we as a society deal with politics and sexuality much more easily than religion. On television or in movies, you seldom see a character who's an observant Jew."

In 1995, the lack of inspirational content prompted playwright Bryan Coley and some fellow Christian theater artists to form a theater troupe called Art Within. "It was a knee-jerk reaction to the hopelessness we saw in arts and the media," says Coley. "As Christians we saw sex and violence, but didn't see anything that represented us, so we decided to do something about it. We adopted as our motto a line by Michaelangelo: 'Criticize by creating.' We think there's a way to communicate hope and that life has meaning, and not in a Disney film way where everyone has happy endings."

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