Theater Review: Can Undermain’s New Comedy Sort Out the Mess Caused by Conflicting Religious Traditions?

Some plays just hit the old intellectual sweet spot. I’m thinking of well-executed Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekov, Strindberg, or the ancient Greek dramatists, etc. These are authors whose plays with substantial content about heroic emotion, philosophical ruminations, or the meaning of truth. However, there is nothing wrong with laughing while we are getting all learned and cultured up, even about religion. This is where Undermain Theatre’s wildly entertaining and provocative production of Fred Curchack’s Burying Our Father: A Biblical Debacle comes in.

Frequent collaborators Laura Jorgensen (co-creator) and Curchack are also the only performers in this show that mixes together about every theatrical and musical element one can think of including rap, folk songs, show tunes, and religious sing-alongs.

Abraham’s sons have reunited after a long separation to bury their father in the cave of Machpela near Hebron, now a holy site for Jews and Muslims. Abraham the patriarch (formerly called Abram) is the father of the Israelites through his second son Isaac. According to Muslims, the same man is a prophet (called Ibrahim) and an ancestor of Muhammad through his first-born son, Ishmael, whose mother was Sarah’s Egyptian handmaid Hagar.

The dramatic, tension-causing debate that drives the play involves the differing accounts of just how things went down after Ishmael left with his mother to “spread the true faith” — or was cast out for “making sport” — depending on which son is telling the story. The humorous renderings of the divergent tales poke some much-needed fun at religious literalism.

Two voices embody many incarnations in this bible lesson in a basement. Just a few of the characters are Isaac, Sarah, God/Yahweh (Jorgensen), and Ishmael, Abraham, Hagar (Curchack). Curchack mans the guitar with boundless energy while wielding one of the most lushly soothing voices I have heard in theater, yet just a few of the reasons he won the “Renaissance Theater Artist” award from the DFW Theater Critics Forum in 2010. Jorgensen is the lady with a thousand funny faces. Her “whatever”-spouting Sarah, and lisping God are show-stoppers.

This “guaranteed true story” is a tongue-in-cheek, almost vaudeville-esque, retelling of the different gospels with healthy bits of modern “I’m okay, you’re okay” messages and chilling moments of poignancy. It is beyond clever, has a very pleasant rhyming sensibility, and some biblically epic cringe-worthy belly laughing. Who would not love a play that has a song addressed to God with the lyrics “I’ll do what You want me to do, because I’m scared of You?” And, don’t forget to take a swig of lobby wine anytime you hear a character utter “Oy gevalt.”

The treatment of the two Abrahamic traditions is evenhanded; however, allowing equal time for the proto-Muslim side is quite refreshing, and might I say, sorely needed in this time of rampant Islamic intolerance. Burying Our Father: A Biblical Debacle is not a passion play meant to convert the undecided, but a passionate play meant to entertain and inform hearts and minds.