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P.W. showcases the grotesque and the tender in 'J.B.'

Production Workshop's newest play, "J.B.," which runs tonight through Monday, begins with a grotesque distortion of a familiar scene. A family sits around a table in zombie-like paralysis as two ensemble members appear to smear their foreheads with blood. An actor then swiftly pulls out the tablecloth from under the family's outstretched hands, as a droning refrain spills from the speakers: "If God is God, He is not good. If God is good, He is not God." This sequence sets in motion the plot of this disconcerting but thought-provoking production.

Director Aubie Merrylees '10 made clear that he wanted his interpretation of "J.B." to transcend realism and match the grand scale of the Book of Job, on which Archibald MacLeish's 1958 Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play is based.

For Merrylees, the decision to stage "J.B." as a first-time director was "scary."

"This isn't a living room drama," he said.

Two characters - Zuss, played by Dan Sterba '08.5, and Nickles, played by Lizzie Feidelson '11 - take on the roles of God and Satan in the biblical story of Job and toy with the fate of J.B. (Morgan Ritchie '10), stripping him of prosperity, family and health. MacLeish's original script was set at a carnival, but Merrylees decided to remove any reference to time period or setting. The barren stage is meant to give the audience the same feeling of emptiness that J.B. himself suffers, Merrylees said.

The absence of any identifiable place, combined with the production's prominent use of lighting and sound effects, disorients the audience, mirroring the experience of J.B. and his wife, Sarah, played by Sophie Shackleton '09.

When Zuss and Nickles kill off J.B.'s children, cacophonous music drowns the dialogue. The audience feels the destruction viscerally through reverberations in their own seats.

"(The characters) are being crushed, so (the audience) should be crushed," said David Harrington '08.5, the play's music and sound designer.

Unsettling music recurs throughout the 75-minute play, an effect that can become tiring. But the juxtaposition between silence and noise seems to reflect, on a sensory level, the collisions of opposites - like good and evil, morality and corruption - that destroy J.B.'s feeling of order in the world.

At the same time, Merrylees wanted to emphasize the fact that "J.B." is also a universally human story about the quest for understanding, he said. In the play's intimate ending, J.B. and Sarah are reunited for a quiet moment of tenderness. Their shyness upon seeing each other again evokes the timidness of a first date.

In the absence of a well-defined setting, committed acting and dynamic physicalities help to propel the plot. Feidelson's and Sterba's attention to the subtle shifts in their characters' relationship makes their performances especially compelling. The six-person ensemble contributes to the surrealism of the production.

Merrylees believes that the basic human conflicts of "J.B." will resonate with viewers. "Job is everywhere," he said, quoting the script.

"This story is always played out," he added. "That's why it's relevant."


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