The First Play

“Throw in our free parking and it’s the best deal in town!” The young blonde usher steps down from the wooden floorboards, and an optimistic, honest country song overtakes the golf-claps of Provision Theater’s modest audience on the opening Friday night of “Fish Eyes.” A spotlight focuses on center stage, revealing an abstract fishing boat hull. Its wooden boards curve up against a backdrop of twine netting, prehistoric logs, and the blue glow of brackish water. Two regular guys step on stage in blue jeans and flannel shirts. They’re a little too clean for having spent the day dragging a net through a tributary in 1 BC. With their shirts tucked in and their hair neatly combed, the brothers look ready to take their seats in church. Shuffling in my own seat to hide my scuffed jeans and T-shirt, I reflect that I would’ve been better dressed for the occasion, and gotten a better deal on entry fee, if I had waited for next  Sunday’s church service.

Jesus hasn’t shown up in the play yet, but I had already felt his presence in the parking lot. Plastic signs with a logo of the rising sun marked the fence of a playground and surrounded the icy lot. They led up to a familiar set of doors that recall a hometown elementary or middle school. Inside, several ushers stood smiling brightly in front of a black curtain. By the end of an extremely polite ticket exchange, I realized that I had left the Chicago city limits and stepped into a small town community church, one that evokes those on the side of the highway that have “Jesus saves” written in block letters underneath their name.

Five minutes into the play, Andy, the shorter brother (played by Rod Armentrout), looks up from a ragged fishing net on the floor of the stage to holler, “Good morning,” into the audience. I shouldn’t have been surprised that the imagined stranger that Andy was addressing in the dark of the theater turns out to be the celebrated “fisher of men,” Jesus Christ. I credit the actors, Armentrout and Mark Demel (who plays the taller brother, “Saint” Pete), with the success of this theatrical effect. They bring the near tangible presence of Jesus from a Sunday service into the theater.

Armentrout’s and Demel’s pantomime gives a traditional story the potential to be more stimulating, playing on the concept of Jesus as a imaginary character in an attempt to include the skeptics in the audience. Some scenes artfully accomplish this effect with a lingering silence, such as the moment when the two brothers have their feet washed by Jesus. They remove their socks and reluctantly stick their bare feet over the edge of the stage with wonder and strangeness painted on their faces. The silence and subtlety of the moment, as the actors gently pass Jesus’ touch from one foot to the other, generates emotion that all of the audience can enjoy. Other moments prove tedious and alienating to the skeptic in the audience. The exclamations of “What does it all mean?” that occur throughout the play feel like cheap attempts at intrigue, hurting its integrity.

The play’s sometimes clever humor is inconsistent, too often interrupted by trite one liners delivered at the wrong moment. A scene when Andy and Pete joke about a hysteric gaggle of Jesus’s female followers intrudes into the height of the drama of the crucifixion. This moment leaves a rift in the audience, a tension between those who find the joke to be sexist or irrelevant and those who laugh at it. The joke splits the audience at a late moment in the play, when they might otherwise be united in the drama of Jesus’s death.

“Fish Eyes” makes a strong attempt to bring an audience together with a series of clever glances at faith, but ultimately, I left the theater feeling divided and disparate from the people sitting next to me.

Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. Through March 31. Friday-Sunday, various times. $10-$32. (312)455-0066. provisiontheater.org