A Light-Hearted Pilgrimage

Review of the play Jonah, from the Sight & Sound Theatres company

Recently, I joined my family on an American Evangelical pilgrimage.  I went to see a production at the Sight and Sound Theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which runs only one of its several plays based on Bible stories per year.

The tone and style seems characteristic of Evangelical works.  It is humorous, gentle, and somewhat upbeat.  It is not at all subtle about its themes, and there is some preaching.  The way in which the preaching is introduced near the end seems appropriate in light of the theme and spiritual meaning of the story. It is positive in its portrayal of individuals; in fact, the rebellious protagonist of the book of the Bible on which the play is based is really the most villainous character.

My favorite part was the ship.  Unlike the whale scene later on in the production, the ship scene is fully theatrical.  People in dark costumes stand around the sides of the massive boat model that is somehow movable, waving blue sheets in choreographed movements to represent the tempest.  The captain of the ship, keen and practical, willing to believe in forces that he cannot understand, was my favorite character.

The next scene with highly complicated theatrical effects, the whale scene, is also visually stimulating but is compromised by the fact that the producers evidently could not show everything they wanted to in the native media of the theater.  Segments of the story are told through digitally-rendered video.  There was, however, a large whale-model, which was turned to face the audience, coming off the boundary of the set, in one immersive moment.  The effect reminded me of 3D movies, where elements on the screen appear to come out at you.  Theater has surely been using the seating area of auditoriums for effects longer than cinema has, but I wonder if theater in turn might now be drawing from cinema.

Video is substituted for live theatrical acting in one other part.  In an opening prologue, an animated cartoon presents a fictional account of Jonah's childhood, setting the stage (but not even literally) for Jonah's prejudices and personality traits that drive the plot later on.  Not only was the animated cartoon a foreign method to the medium of live theater, but it set the expectations for the tone to be very light.  Fortunately, the whole play did not turn out to be quite as light as the cartoon intro suggested.  Still, the cartoon did not help build any sense of historical continuity or theological seriousness.

Some parts of the play are a little deeper, and some historical interest is generated by appearance of King Jeroboam and the circumstances surrounding the Assyrian Empire.  However, there is little attempt at authenticity.  For instance, characters go around quoting the Old Testament by chapter and verse, despite the well-known fact that the Bible was not divided into the modern chapters until the Middle Ages.

The set of Nineveh was interesting.  The first scene in which the gates of Nineveh are seen make it look like a fantasy-land Dark Fortress, complete with flames and soldiers bearing spiky swords.

Jonah was entertaining and upbeat, with deep characterization.  The visuals were definitely interesting.  However, I don't know if humor and expensive theatrical visuals are good enough to portray the depth of the significance of the Bible story.  Jonah's experience inside the whale should have shown the depths of human agony and desperation, echoing the crucifixion and burial of Christ.  Instead, the scene was mostly glossed over with comedy.

I have never heard anyone express a negative opinion of the Sight & Sound productions before.  All the people I know who have ever seen any of the plays only ever rave about them endlessly.  Therefore, it is hardly my place to put down something that means so much to so many people, that really has brought the Bible to life for them.  The play that I saw was meticulously produced, every detail accounted for.  Despite not being as solemn or as historically realistic as I would have liked, Jonah was fully sincere.


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