Story: Matt has comfortably hung out with Jesus for years in Portland, Ore. Or, at least, with whom he thought was Jesus. A chance encounter with St. Peter at a vegan restaurant leads to the disturbing realization, thanks to Pete’s explanation, that Matt’s invisible pal is merely an “imaginary Jesus,” affable though he may be.
Alarmed and disappointed by this stunning development, Matt begins a frenetic quest for the real Jesus, a trek that takes him through distant lands and long-ago times as well as the streets of Portland. Along the way he meets Magic 8-Ball Jesus, Political Power Jesus, Hippie Jesus, Motorcycle Jesus, Portland Jesus and sundry other “Jesi,” as well as a talking donkey, a prostitute, a comic book nerd, an atheist group and even the President of the United States.
Highlights: Mustard Seed Theatre artistic director Deanna Jent read Matt Mikalatos’ fanciful novel, which was published in 2010, on a lengthy flight back to St. Louis. Jent’s adaptation is receiving its premiere production under her direction of a sprawling troupe of Mustard Seed players, who populate the intimate Fontbonne Fine Arts Theatre with frenzied, manic motion that must keep stage manager Jean Lang and her assistants, Angela Doer and London Reynolds, as busy as traffic cops at a Black Friday sale.
Other Info: But what to say about Imaginary Jesus and this adaptation? Certainly, it is fitfully funny, even if the laugh-out-loud moments are strung together with routines that become increasingly tedious throughout the show’s two acts and 120 minutes, including intermission. That’s not uncommon with wacky stories, as any Marx Brothers movie or Monty Python skit demonstrates. A shrewd editor, however, might improve proceedings by paring 15 minutes or so out of the script.
As it is, however, Jent’s adaptation has its share of crazy bits as well as nuggets of useful theology sprinkled about. Once our intrepid protagonist, Matt, agrees to let the narrator tell the story, the audience is taken on an updated Magical Mystery Tour without a double-decker bus. Throughout Dunsi Dai’s bizarre design of pyramidal shapes that the cast adroitly positions and re-positions for various scenes on the two-tiered set, colorful characters pop up as Matt’s mind and spirit run amok in their search for spiritual destiny.
Among the many highlights are Daniel Lanier spouting empty truisms as Magic 8-Ball Jesus as well as offering aphorisms as a cowboy crooner, Roger Erb looking ruggedly handsome in his tony suit and pontificating confidently as Political Power Jesus and Leslie Wobbe as a sniffling, lovestruck geek inviting a comic book store manager (Aaron Orion Baker) to join her in redemption before the Apocalypse.
Michelle Hand adds the role of Daisy, a glib, all-business, talking donkey to her extensive resume, essaying the most amusing bray and attitude since Francis counseled Donald O’Connor. J. Samuel Davis is his usual polished and accomplished self as a contemporary St. Peter who is puzzled why Matt keeps his Jesus dressed in desert attire in the Pacific Northwest.
Our fearless protagonist, Matt, is earnestly portrayed by Robert Thibault, most effectively in a down-hill, inner-tube slalom competition with Free Will Jesus, Destiny Jesus and two more Jesi, all of whom resort to treachery to win that particular race. Thibault also competes for attention with his narrator, a sure and determined Chad Morris, who even joins the audience at times for his observations of the goings-on.
Ben Ritchie is a smooth and totally convincing Portland Jesus, right down to using a credit card to pay for Matt’s meal, while Nicole Angeli shows her accomplished way of finessing a clever line or three as the prostitute Sandy.
Julie Venegoni shares time as a mute mule and also as Matt’s long-suffering wife Krista, miffed because President Obama has accepted Matt’s offer to dinner and Matt hasn’t bothered to clean the bathroom. What’s a hostess to do? Never fear, because this plot complication serves as a convenient opportunity for showing how Jesus cared for his apostles and was willing to do menial tasks as proof.
Justin Ivan Brown is amusing as Matt’s best buddy and “imaginary Jesus” of longest standing and Amy Loui has a poignant scene as Jesus’ mother, Mary. The large ensemble also features wacky contributions by Zoe Sullivan, Vanessa Waggoner, Kyle Powell and Jaime Zayas.
Props master Meg Brinkley deserves thanks for those goofy inner tubes as well as myriad other knickknacks. JC Kracijek worked overtime to fashion an array of appealing attire, most notably Daisy’s equine look and the appropriate garb for the sundry Jesi, while Michael Sullivan’s lighting keeps up with the quick-paced action on stage.
Michael Perkins provides suitable background music for various scenes, including some Keystone Kops moments when Jent sends her charges careening over the double-decked set, causing one character to lament that there should be a slower imaginary Jesus to chase.
At the end of the evening, one is left with feelings similar to Thanksgiving dinner: It’s a sumptuous repast, for sure, but it’s more satisfying and fulfilling if one avoids over-consumption. Otherwise, beware the feeling of a glutton who tries to devour too much. Surely, Jesus would point out that’s a cardinal sin.
Play: Imaginary Jesus
Group: Mustard Seed Theatre
Venue: Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre, Big Bend at Wydown
Dates: November 23, 24, 25, 29, 30, December 1, 2
Rating: A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb