In “Jonah’s Dream,” playwright William Gibson, whose eclectic career includes “Two for the Seesaw,” “The Miracle Worker” and “Golda’s Balcony,” turns late in his life to the Bible story of forgiveness, mercy and inclusion of “Jonah and the Whale.” But the script and the production that’s world preeming at this university-based professional theater are just too hard to swallow, lacking in cohesion and failing in their primary goal to entertain as well as illuminate.
Gibson, who turns 91 this month, describes the work as “a comic strip.” And the production, helmed by Gary M. English — who staged several Gibson revivals at the Berkshire Theater Festival over the past few summers, is played as a burlesque dream, complete with song, dance and puppetry.
That’s not necessarily a bad idea considering the story’s fabulist and fantastical elements. But even low comedy needs high skill, and illogical dreams — even those that deal with talking goats and fish and the inner workings of a whale — need clarity.
Script retells the ancient story as a series of dreams that begin with God talking to bedraggled hermit Jonah (Jonathan Epstein) via his goat. He instructs this last survivor of his people to turn prophet and go to Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire. Since Assyrians slaughtered the Jews, including Jonah’s family, Jonah is reluctant to follow, forgive and forget. Gabby goat or no, he flees from God’s mission of impossible mercy.
Gibson playfully and colorfully embellishes the tale as a kind of “A Not so Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Nineveh.” Jonah runs but he can’t hide; wherever he goes, the call to Nineveh beckons via fortunetellers, sea captains and talking fish.
Turning his back on God and his faith, Jonah hops a boat, but a storm tosses him overboard, where he ends up in the belly of a whale. A divine messenger (Brandy Zarle, who plays a variety of surrogate God roles) appears and finally persuades Jonah to turn prophet for a city that’s sure to pay no heed and seems destined for an almighty wrath. However, when Nineveh does repent, Jonah is left to search for the forgiveness in his heart — or so he dreams.
God never said it was going to be easy, and auds not so familiar with Sunday school might feel the same way. Narrative is abbreviated in some crucial turning-point scenes and drawn out to distraction in others. When Jonah chooses an all-embracing life at story’s end, it’s as if the moment comes arbitrarily and not as a lesson learned and earned through an evolving series of experiences.
Production also doesn’t find a singular visual or playing style to pull the theatrical elements together into a satisfying whole. Attempts at broad comedy in script and execution simply miss the mark. It takes more than disjointed shtick, loopy dances and scattered songs (accompanied by a five-piece ensemble) to make hilarity ensue.
Though puppetry by Ulysses Jones is a welcome addition (and more would have even been better), scenic design comes up short at anchoring the dreamscape — and fails in the money scene inside the whale.
Epstein gives a warm and heartfelt perf as Jonah, in this anti-Ahab story of a man trying to escape someone else’s focus: God’s. But a more anarchical spirit is needed to help propel this tale of man trying to outrun the omnipotent. Zarle’s guardian angel has poignant moments, but she, too, lacks the comic dazzle needed in her many other roles. Of all the players, the goat comes off best.