A Beginner's Guide to Deicide
By Qui Nguyen and Robert Ross Parker
Directed by Elliott Rauh
Through Oct. 27 at Single Carrot Theatre
Theological comedy is a pretty small genre which probably begins with Apuleius' Latin novel The Golden Ass, whose surface similarities with the ultra-serious Confessions of his compatriot St. Augustine caused the saint to fear the two works would forever be confused. More recently, there's Life of Brian, Time Bandits, and even a few things-The Book of Mormon, for instance-that don't involve Terry Gilliam. Now, add to the list A Beginner's Guide to Deicide, the kitschy play by Qui Nguyen and Ross Parker (who also wrote the Obie award-winning Vampire Cowboys), now showing at Single Carrot.
The play follows so-called "badass" Catholic school girl Lucy (Lauren Saunders) as she goes on a mission-backwards in time, as it turns out-to kill God, armed with a battle ax, and then, a sword, and her Encyclopedia Brown-style sidekick Skeeter aka Mary (Britt Olsen-Ecker). At first it seems as if Lucy's basic psychological motivation-as well as the play's visual vocabulary-comes straight from Quentin Tarantino, especially Kill Bill. It is in a very basic sense a revenge play. But because "Bill" is God here, what is actually at stake is theodicy: How can there be an all-powerful, all-good god in a painful, unjust universe? As the play progresses through several rounds of silly farce-fights (it is structured like a video game filtered through Joseph Campbell) and a self-help guide for killing one's enemy, the theological problem actually becomes even more tangled and interesting.
Which is not to say that the authors really have a handle on its complexity. Lucy initially beheads the Pope and then ends up tying up Darwin (both played by the spectacularly versatile Chris Dews, who portrays each philosopher/theologian/poet in the scenes to come), whose discoveries fascinate the young Skeeter, who considers herself a scientist. It is usually torture to watch an adult try to act like a child, but Olsen-Ecker nails the character with just the right bit of endearing, bratty bewilderment at the world (she also sings quite well). I have seen Olsen-Ecker many times (full disclosure: She once directed an operetta for which I wrote the libretto) and didn't realize it was her playing the part until halfway through, when her character breaks role and introduces herself as the actress making an announcement. (This is that kind of po-mo play, full of winks to the audience, but thanks to director Elliott Rauh, Single Carrot manages to do it well.)
Skeeter is, in fact, far more scientifically advanced than Darwin (though she is also ready to take credit for his discoveries) and suggests to Lucy that they might find God at the moment after the Big Bang. This sends Lucy on a killing spree: first Darwin, then Nietzsche, then Dante, then Joan of Arc (all, as mentioned, played by Dews). Voltaire, Calvin, Joseph Smith, and a slew of others are also thrown in but dispatched of so quickly they don't even make the program notes. In a way, it doesn't matter who these people are. Or, rather, it probably does, but I don't think the playwrights know why. Nietzsche is depicted like Obi-Wan Kenobi, which makes it seem as if he is in monk robes and shares virtually nothing with the philosopher of the Antichrist who declared the death of God. Dante is depicted as a Bible-thumping holy roller much closer to Savonarola, Florence's radical monk of the Italian Renaissance, than the author of The Divine Comedy. Sure, the purpose is comedic, but why have these actual names if you don't make use of the actual comedy they could provide?
Joan of Arc, and then Jesus, come off much better: The dance-off between Lucy and Joan is a definite highlight, and the crazy-love Jesus puppet is brilliant. ("I looooove you," the muppet says, depicting the Christ as both crazy and aware of it.)
After Jesus, Lucy finally reaches God, who turns out to be kind of a hillbilly sitting in a lawn chair ("why not?" seems to be the approach and, what the hell, it kind of works). And that's when the big theological shift occurs. I won't reveal what it is because it is also the turning point in the play's plot, but it calls into question the value of existence itself and embraces something more like the monistic view of the Upanishads, or Nietzsche's early The Birth of Tragedy, where the satyr Silenus echoes the cosmic perspective when he says, "What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is-to die soon." And then it twists again.
A Beginner's Guide is a longish play for Single Carrot, clocking in at two hours, but it is full of sidetracks and diversions. It starts with a faux musical worship service where Jack Sossman and Sean James (who also play matrix-inspired Vampire Cowboys and angels and cops) sing faux worship songs such as a rendition of "My God Is an Awesome God" that takes the term "awesome" in the most white-hat bro-ish sense of the word and riffs on it from there. In the middle of the play, there is a clever animated short, all of which makes for a fun, funny evening. What some of the jokes and references lack in specificity or accuracy, the Carrots make up for with zany zeal. And perhaps that is the bigger point: All zeal, as an inherently human quality, is zany when seen from the perspective of a deity, and all divine action is silly, seen from the perspective of an older god.
For more information, visit singlecarrot.com.