Berkeley Rep’s Good Book is a revelation

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The cast of The Good Book at Berkeley Repertory Theatre includes (foreground) Lance Gardner; (background, from left) Annette O’Toole, Wayne Wilcox, Elijah Alexander, Shannon Tyo and Denmo Ibrahim. Below: Ibrahim is surrounded by (from left) Alexander, Gardner, Wilcox and Tyo. Photos courtesy of Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Let’s just admit it. The Bible is a clusterf**k. How in the world did such a literary hodgepodge, political football, myth collection become one of the most influential – if not the most influential book – ever created? That is the mammoth question playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare ask in their fascinating play The Good Book now at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Their focus here really isn’t Christianity or even religion in the larger sense but rather how the Bible evolved over centuries into what we know it to be today: a confusing, contradictory, occasionally beautiful piñata poked at by people around the globe who want everything from solace to spiritual connection to straight up power.

How Peterson, Berkeley Rep’s associate director, and O’Hare (a Tony-winning actor best known lately for his TV work on “American Horror Story” and “This Is Us”) go about answering the question of what the Bible really is takes nearly three hours and a play that careens all through time and space in a most entertaining manner. They gather their seven remarkable actors amid the detritus of Rachel Hauck’s set – mostly overturned tables and chairs – and begin to create order. Then they begin what feels like a Bible 101 class, with Annette O’Toole taking the lead, as they all ponder the questions: what is the Bible (what is it really apart from all the baggage piled on top of it) and where the hell did it really come from?

The college seminar idea, as it turns out, isn’t far off. As the play comes into focus, O’Toole emerges as Miriam Lewis, a renowned Bible scholar and professor who, it should be noted, does not believe in God. The free-form nature of the play allows us to be in Miriam’s classroom and to bounce back centuries as we experience great moments in the creation of the Bible. Well, maybe not so great. Just moments. Like when a group of travelers, who have done their best to record the stories of their people and Jesus and Jesus’ wife on various scrolls, discover that a member of their band has discarded some of the most important scrolls so that he might collect figs to nourish them on their journey. B’bye, Jesus’ wife.

The other thread of the story involves a boy named Connor (Keith Nobbs), who is being raised Catholic and has become a “Biblehead,” someone obsessed with the Bible. He has an old-fashioned cassette recorder and, in addition to capturing the details of his life, he pretends to interview important figures from the Bible and the Bible’s history (King James even shows up). All of that biblical fascination adds layers of complication as he grows up and realizes he’s gay. He then struggles to hide that fact from his parents and his God until he rejects the church (even if temporarily) to figure out how to discover a loving deity instead of a hateful one.

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The motor at the heart of the play is O’Toole as Miriam. She’s smart, sarcastic and unafraid to put you in your place because she knows more than you do. In one of the play’s more contrived constructs, Miriam is the subject of a New Yorker article about the “new atheists,” and the reporter (Shannon Tyo) crafts a profile that displeases the professor mightily. The article also causes problems professionally (her students, especially the Christian students, find her judgmental) and personally with Miriam’s longtime companion (Elijah Alexander), an archeologist spending more and more time on his far-away digs.

Weaving in and out of Miriam’s and Connor’s stories, the play allows for an overview of the Bible (via Miriam) and its role in persecution and personal pain (via Connor). What’s really interesting, though, is the sense that most of us know so little about the Bible other than the parts that are dragged out all the time (say hey, Leviticus!) or so ingrained in our consciousness (Ecclesiastes!) that it’s hard to imagine Western culture without them. Though the play isn’t interested in Bible bashing per se, it does seem to relish tossing off facts like such and such an apostle never existed! Such and such an apostle never actually knew Jesus! Except for Paul’s letters, the Bible is not historical! All these little nuggets indicate that the Bible is like a Christian Wikipedia, altered and edited by just about anyone and everyone, not all of whom had the best or most spiritual intentions.

The Good Book, which also features sharp performances by Denmo Ibrahim, Lance Gardner and Wayne Wilcox, can feel scattershot, but that’s probably by design. Except for a trite TV talk show moment, it all works and proves that from disparate parts, you can assemble something that, even though it seems unlikely, coalesces in a deeply meaningful, thought-provoking way.

Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson’s The Good Book continues through June 9 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$97 (subject to change). Call 510-64702949 or visit

Bass and voice conjure the Trojans in An Iliad


Henry Woronicz is The Poet in the Lisa Peterson-Denis O’Hare adaptation of Homer’s The Iliad. The show, called An Iliad, is a co-production of Berkeley Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse. Photos by

One minute the stage is bare, then there’s a blackout, some noise, and suddenly the stage is full of…a poet. Not just a poet, but The Poet, the guy who is going to tell us the story of …not The Iliad but An Iliad.

And what’s better than being told a story? Nothing, especially when the teller is as dynamic and as bracing as Henry Woronicz, who plays The Poet in this adaption from Homer by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, who also directs. The language is muscular, bold and modern (and drawn from the Robert Fagles translation); it conjures the horrors of the Trojan War in vivid terms that are both epic and intimate.

For an hour and 40 minutes, Woronicz fills Berkeley Repertory Theater’s Thrust Stage with an energetic accounting of warriors, heroes, cowards and the same futility of war nonsense that still colors every story of war, old or new.

As handsome as this production is (a co-production with La Jolla Playhouse), with its austere, mostly bare stage by Rachel Hauck and its stunning, shadow-heavy lighting design by Scott Zielinski, I can’t say I was captivated. I wanted to be, but I never quite got there.


Part of the reason is context, or lack of one. Why is this Poet spouting Homer? Why are we hearing The Iliad declaimed in this vague setting? Certainly stories don’t need context except the ones they conjure. And An Iliad takes us back to the battlefields of Troy with a few bolts of contemporary lightning thrown in to make sure we get the parallels. In one impressive (if overly emphatic) feat, The Poet recounts all the major wars in history, and later in the show, rattles off a list of global terrorism hot spots. We get it! War and terrorism have plagued civilization since there’s been civilization. But where did this guy come from and why is he talking to us, apart from the fact that tickets have been purchased and a show is expected?

There were riveting moments in Woronicz’s performance, and then there were times when the text got convoluted and lost momentum. There were moments when the adaptation cut into something deep and resonant and then moments when it felt actorly and indulgent.

The moment An Iliad became a play rather than just an enthusiastically told story was Brian Ellingsen’s arrival in the theater as he took to his perch above the stage to play his upright bass. He underscores much of the narrative and becomes for The Poet, a reaction, an audience, a conscience. Ellingsen brings out so much sound – beauty and cacophony – and such a variety of sound that it almost defies the logic. Is that really one person making such exquisite noise? Yes – one person and a tremendous sound design and composition by Mark Bennett.

When The Poet first arrives, and before he begins his story in earnest, he says, “Every time I start this song I hope it’s the last time.” Why? Because it’s so painful and costs so much to tell? Or is he a tired wandering poet who wants to go home (or maybe land a part in a sitcom)? I know when dealing with the Greeks, we’re supposed to be highbrow and not ask such questions. The story is enough. This is timeless stuff, or so they say. Perhaps if I was more into the Greeks, if I knew my Menelaus from my Patroclus, I’d be more into about this adaptation. As it is, I’m appreciative if not enthusiastic.


Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s An Iliad continues through Nov. 18 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $14.50-$77, subject to change. Call 510-647-2949 or visit