The piped-in recording of the toe-tapping, banjo strumming, “Down By the Riverside,” with the lyrics “I ain’t gonna study war no more,” captures some of the down hominess for this provocative show.
When the lights come up, actor Charles Shafer puts on dark glasses and a gangster’s pinstripe, double-breasted, Zoot-suit jacket and becomes God. In a gravely raspy voice, God orders us to silence our cell phones or “…I’ll silence you.” We’re in a plush office made up of a desk decked with an elegant 1930’s antique, black candlestick phone with rotary dial. And God’s first commandment is “Thou Shalt Laugh.”
What Mr. Shafer, who is also a law professor at the University of Baltimore, and active in the Catapult Improv Group, has going for him is that , as a character actor, he comes across as folksy and personable. And he’s a darn good gag writer.
Shafer shares what he calls his “rants,” (in the program notes) playing God, Rabbi Fishbein, Joe in a local bar, Carla at a friend’s house, and Jesus at home, on Earth.
And he plays himself when he gives us a story about what he learned as a boy in Hebrew school. The writer in him wants us to think about and discuss the heady relationship between God and religion with a capital R. Should we regard Religion as something sacred or scary?
First of all, forget the game of Scrabble. Most of Shafer’s tirades that take place between God and some Biblical luminaries have more depth than mere word play. The relationships between God and humans, as depicted in phone conversations, by Shafer, are spiced up with historical perspective. Here’s a sample: During a phone conversation with the Virgin Mary, who evidently has been knocked up and is calling for help, God says. “Nobody is going to write a book about this.” and “What happens in Nazareth stays in Nazareth.”
Wonderfully funny lines when you consider that the Bible has been the number one best-selling book in the history of Western Civilization.
Shafer, as the playwright, embeds modern references to pop psychology, such as how God is going to use “tough love” to get good behavior.
Memorable humorous moments happen when Shafer as God is no longer “Mr. Nice God.” His phone call from Moses deals with the sequence of the Ten Plagues (from the book of Exodus). It isn’t blasphemous because it’s in the Bible. But the way Shafer re-creates it is a fresh take. According to Shafer, the Jews are not Chosen People. God plays both sides of the power struggle between the Egyptians and the enslaved Jews, who are led by Moses into freedom in the wilderness. God also takes phone calls from the enemy, the Egyptian Pharaoh. After all, God is omnipotent.
The smoothest character transitions take place during the monologue by Rabbi Fishbein. Shafer switches suit jackets, skillfully adopts a convincing Hebrew dialect as the doctor of divinity in his college classroom. Shafer as Fishbein, lectures on “How to create your own religion,” which includes how Buddha launched a world class religion. You have to “look poor” and get in touch with common people. Go to a local bar and listen to local barroom talk. So, Shafer puts on a cap, chomps on a cigar, and becomes Joe, the local barfly, who takes us into Frank’s Bar.
Granted some of Shafer’s jokes fall flat. His jokes about the Jews wanting all the real estate in the wilderness and the Mideast get a bit stale and overdone. But Joe’s rambling common sense soliloquy about God, the fireman, and the World Trade Center on 9/11 is a powerfully funny story, worth the price of admission. (Maybe it’s better to laugh than launch two wars?
The character of Carla needs to be amplified and expanded. Carla is struck with the light of the Lord and is hot for Father Giuliani (or is it Father Michael?). Even though Shafer asks us in the audience to use our imaginations to fill in the details, that segment doesn’t give us enough clues about what’s really going on to build in dramatic tension. We need more information; and Giuliani and Carla need more stage time. (Is this the famous priest who for nine months volunteered at Ground Zero in New York City, praying over and blessing recovered body parts?)
Shafer plants some strong seeds for stories here that need to be developed and allowed to grow. And that includes the sequence that has Jesus on his cell phone trying to talk God out of the crucifixion. Although some of Shafer’s material reflects edgy viewpoints, it’s safe and educational for a family audience, “age 13 and up.” (There was one young school aged boy with his family in the audience on opening night.) Shafer himself comes across as a gentle soul, nice guy, with a big friendly smile. I left wanting more and that’s good.
Sacred and Scared Get the Same Score in Scrabble has 5 performances, ending July 28, 2012, at Caos on F, 923 F St NW, Washington, DC
Details and tickets
Rosalind rates this a 3 out of a possible 5.