J.B. In Treble Key: City Lit Stages All-Female Production of Archibald MacLeish Classic
Even devout Bible scholars have been known to admit that the story of Job, as handed down by mortal scribes, does not show the Almighty at his best, instead portraying the Supreme Being as a swaggering gamer willing to inflict terrible injury on his most loyal supporter for no discernible purpose beyond a frivolous wager. Confronted in 1958 with the shadows of global upheaval engendered by the recent war, Archibald MacLeish, author of J.B. (a modern rendering of "Job") saw in his ill-used hero's suffering the existential question of why human beings continue to worship so callously injust a deity.
This wasn't the question that beguiled Terry McCabe, however. "There is no more underused group of performers than character actresses, even though they represent some of the best talent in any theater community," declares the artistic director of the City Lit Theatre Company. "I'd read about a production of John Van Druten's I Remember Mama, a play focusing on a Norwegian immigrant family in early 20th century, where its two dozen roles—male and female—were played by a small nucleus of middle-aged women, and this convinced me that such an approach was capable of conveying our playwright's intent."
Unigender casting is nothing new, of course (Shakespeare was once played exclusively by men, remember) and McCabe is swift to decry stunt-casting for its own sake—a commercial practice encouraging playgoers to put personality ahead of performance and lose the arc of the play amid the novelty of the event itself. Not every play is suited to this approach, either—the cognitive dissonance evoked by, say, a female Stanley Kowalski may prove too much for modern playgoers' suspension of disbelief.
MacLeish's imagery already has Brechtian alienation built into its very concept, however. The earthly realm is represented by a circus that has seen better days. Humble vendors of balloons and popcorn are assigned the roles of God and Satan, transformed into their sacred personae by ornate masks. Our protagonist occupies a fragment of the Big Top tent, surveyed from above by his celestial overlords, where he receives news of his misfortunes, along with feeble explanations from a trio of likewise gone-to-seed social analysts.
With its ensemble of mature actresses drawn from Chicago's favorite storefront-circuit luminaries, "There will be no other show in town like this one!" McCabe insists, "J.B. isn't a musical, but it resembles Jesus Christ Superstar in that it's a highly theatrical version of the Bible. Every 99-seat theater ever built was intended to contain the full range of the cosmos, so this metaphor for the universe should be a perfect fit for City Lit's intimate space."
"The universality is reinforced when we see that the struggles of the characters are the struggles of us all, regardless of gender or age."
J.B.opens at City Lit Theatre in the Edgewater Presbyterian Church on November 5 and runs through December 10.
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