Playbill graphic for "Jacob's House"

The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth…. And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life. — Genesis 6: 11-13, 17

A Klee drawing named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.  His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.  This is how one pictures the angel of history.  His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. — Walter Benjamin

Hey kids, 2012 is just around the corner, and after a dry, post-Y2K decade, Biblical metaphors are back in style, flooding the stage (as it were) at the same time the Tennessee Valley is being flooded by a real, not metaphorical flood. Two productions up now, Noah’s Arkansas and Jacob’s House use these metaphors to explore the Great American Love Affair with Apocalypse.

There are two things everyone needs to keep in mind when contemplating the rich complexity of America’s love affair with Biblical apocalypse: First, it transcends religion. If you dig on an Abrahamic faith, Christian, Jew, or Muslim, you probably have a relative who has said with serene self-confidence that the end is nigh. (You might have even said it yourself.) Even formerly non-apocalyptic sects like Catholics are getting in on the action, and if I had a quarter for every time someone told me Moshiach is coming, I’d be able to afford an apocalypse proof bomb shelter like Rayford Steele’s. (No relation to Michael Steele.) The second thing you have to keep in mind is the Old Testament flavor of apocalypse. The word “apocalypse” is Greek, meaning “to uncover” or “reveal” and usually refers to that very Christian event where Christ comes back and institutes his personal thousand year rule on Earth (a.k.a. “the millennium”). But as both Noah’s Arkansas and Jacob’s House remind us, the roots of original Christianity are deep in the soil of apocalyptic Judaism, and the Christians — call them “puritan” or “fundamentalist” ’cause it’s the same thing — who are turned on by the idea of apocalypse, who were in times past, and are at the moment, the majority population of the United States, think of themselves along with their Jewish brethren as the “chosen people.” This seems particularly true of people the middle parts of our nation. That is to say, folks in the Great Flyover love them some Old Time Religion.

But we aren’t just talking about an objective social fact that pertains to those people over there. To do so would be too simplistic. The authors of  Jacob’s House and Noah’s Arkansas, (August Schulenburg and Jerrod Bogard respectively) have written two plays that exemplify the love affair folks in New York City have with folks in the Great Flyover, whom they see as disturbing and compelling creatures of religious passion and simple intellect — people of poor circumstances who have somehow been touched by The Spirit. And these people — God’s people — have a frightening power, an awesome authenticity, that enables them to rise out of impoverished obscurity, just as Noah survived the flood, just as Abram came from the East to Canaan, and just as Jacob prevailed against the Angel.

Noah’s Arkansas is set inside of a double-wide trailer in present day Arkansas. Wayne and his wife Lizzie are waiting for his son Michael to arrive for summer visitation. Grandpa is there, nauseated and sick, with what we aren’t told. Though it is never explicitly stated, we are led to assume that the son, now fourteen, is the product of a high school romance that was never solemnized in marriage: he’s a true bastard. His mother sends him from her home in Tulsa, Oklahoma to his father’s trailer outside Little Rock every summer, an awkward family situation to be sure. But this summer is different: Michael shows up wearing eyeliner and three uncomfortable looking piercings. Obviously he’s started adolescence. To make matters worse, dad is a typically overweight, working class, good-ole-boy who enjoys recreating with cold beer and pot, fishing, and losing fights with the town cop, who has had it in for him since they played sports together in high school. (Bennett Harrell, who plays the cop, is a skinny guy compared to the Justin Ness who plays Wayne and who easily outweighs Harrell by one hundred pounds. This unfortunate pairing makes Harrell come off more like Barney Fife than the T-1000 of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, especially when the script descends unintentionally to bathos — which is often.) That is, dad has never successfully gotten his head out of his ass. So when junior shows up straight out of the “hospital” for kids with behavior problems (violence, drugs, modernity malaise) is it any wonder that the kid runs, dad calls bio-mom in a panic, bio-mom calls the cops, the cops just happen to be Barney Fife, Barney discovers dad’s weed stash, and violence ensues?

To say they are dysfunctional would be an understatement if their dysfunctionality weren’t so typical. The characters are parodies of “real America” and its problems — kind of like Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin, only in deadly earnest and with a lot of yelling. In the first scene the cop beats the dad and, in front of his silent, female partner, tries to coerce the wife to have sex with him. Then he sends his partner out of the trailer to tell the married couple that he had to go though sensitivity training for sexual harassment because he can’t talk about tits around his female partner. The very fabric these characters are cut from is white trash — probably a flammable pajama material made in China and sold at Wal-Mart — and consequently the audience is expected, required, to recognize their genuine authenticity. This might seem like a paradox to those uninitiated in White Trash Studies, but the key to understanding why shopping at Wal-Mart = Keeping It Real, is to know that Poor = Authentic.

Lester and Michael in the riverbed from "Noah's Arkansas"

The high point of the play for both the text and the cast, is Erik Frandsen who plays Lester, Wayne’s dad and Michael’s grandpa. After an hour and a half of drifting, the point of the play asserts itself when Lester convinces Michael to drive him out to dried up river bed. Lester reveals he has cancer, and Michael is hysterical. Then grandpa gives a compelling monologue about facing mortality that involves a lot of metaphors about storms, rains, and floods. Lester’s plan is to sit in a lawn chair in the dried up river bed until the coming storm produces a flash flood that will wash his lifeless corpse into the vasty deep (the Gulf of Mexico I presume). Before the tragic moment arrives, Lester imparts some Old Testament wisdom to Michael that sounds like a mix of the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Andy Griffith.

If Noah’s Arkansas tries to take a picture of contemporary America,  Jacob’s House is a collage of Americas, real, mythical, and imagined. The time is the present day — the characters have cell phones and make internet jokes.  The place is an attic in the house that Jacob built. It has all his old stuff in it, like (no kidding) a steamer trunk with a toy flintlock rifle and fake, novelty popcorn. It also contains Jacob’s son Joseph (of Technicolor Broadway fame), his two daughters Dinah and Tamar, a host of memories disguised as actors in frontier garb, and a mysterious stranger who won’t reveal his name, though it is clear the stranger is the angel with whom Jacob wrestled to earn the name “Israel.” Like Benjamin’s Angel of History this angel presides over an eternal struggle for renewal and the transfer of authority from one generation to the next. Mr. Schulenburg goes out of his way to make this point: Jacob and his family start off running from the British in the Revolutionary War, flee to the Dakotas after the Civil War, and make it rich on railroads in the 20th century. And just like the pile of debris at the foot of the angel — environmental degradation, bodies of war dead foreign and domestic, those broken on the wheel of slavery, and entire peoples exterminated in the Westward expansion — the atrocities of “progress” are piled in an indistinguishable heap.

Mr. Schulenburg accurately captures the ambiguity of Jacob’s achievement as the third and most important patriarch of Israel: he is both the founder and the original sinner, the parvenu and carpetbagger who gave rise to the twelve tribes; he is the kind of guy who cracks a whole lot of eggs to make his self-aggrandizing omelette. The most powerful passages of the play are when Laban, father of Jacob’s two future wives, describes his own experience wresting coherence and mastery from the recalcitrant wilderness and the savages who live there. Bianca LaVerne Jones, a woman who plays the patriarch Laban, shows off some impressive chops in the role. The best scenes of the play crackle with sincere poetry, and the thoroughly professional cast carry off with ease what could otherwise be turgid and bombastic.

John Brown with a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other

Both plays aspire to greatness, and how could they not? No play can address the great themes of life — the material of all of the Bible — and be comedy or farce. (Let it be noted, however, that Christianity as such gets no air time in either play.) The proof for both plays is the power of the text to maintain a high level of sincerity and visceral emotion of the kind found in poetic English translations of the Christian and Hebrew Bibles. Even a secular audience who never went to formal Judeo-Christian services can instinctively recognize this language: it’s full of “thee”s “thou”s and “thine”s; it’s not the everyday language of people, but it does permeate their speech; and most importantly it can only convey that which is deadly serious. Jokes aren’t recorded in the Bible because humor is too local and specific to be part of the transcendent record of the Chosen People. Both these plays fall short at times when the elevated ambitions of the playwrights are subverted by a pun, an easy laugh, or — much worse — an attempt to say something lofty that comes out as hokum. Jacob’s House is very nearly successful in this project. Some passages could be streamlined and comic energies redirected, but on the whole the play gives an accurate feeling of the tragedy witnessed by the Angel of History. And of course, it is not only our history, the history of John Brown and his contemporary descendants in the Tea Party movement; it is also the history of any people who consider themselves “chosen” to shape the destiny of mankind, no matter what the human cost.

Noah’s Arkansas

April 21 – May 15

Wings Theater, 154 Christopher St.

Jacob’s House

April 29 – May 22

Access Theater

380 Broadway, 4th floor