If we are to err as Americans on any side in our critique of other countries, it should be in the direction of being...
The forces of intolerance just won another victory in Wisconsin.
A local theater group called SummerStage was scheduled to put on a play at Lapham Peak State Park at the end of August and in September, but the Department of Natural Resources banned it.
The play, written by the Reduced Shakespeare Company almost two decades ago, is called “The Bible: Complete Word of God, Abridged.” It’s very light-hearted fare.
For instance, it has Moses coming down from the mountain, saying, “Children of Israel, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is I talked Him down to 10. The bad news is adultery is still one of them.”
The play has been performed hundreds of times in this country without incident, until now.
Until, that is, Vic Eliason raised a stink. Eliason is an evangelical clergyman in Milwaukee who runs the VCY (Voices of Christian Youth) America Radio Network. He has a show, “Cross Currents,” in Milwaukee, and on August 9, he dedicated his hour-long program to condemning the play as “blasphemous” and “diabolical.” He urged his listeners to contact the board members of SummerStage, and he gave out their numbers. He also urged listeners to call the businesses where some of the board members worked and ask them, “How can you have someone on the board who will literally spit in the face of the Bible?”
Eliason also gave out the phone numbers of the DNR’s top two officials and told listeners to ask them why the state was allowing this play to go on, and why it was profiting from it. (The agreement with SummerStage and the Lapham Peak State Park is that 5 percent of ticket sales go to the park, Eliason said.)
As a result of this broadcast and subsequent broadcasts by Mark Belling, another rightwing talk radio host in Milwaukee, SummerStage was inundated with negative calls, and the DNR pulled the plug on the show.
“SummerStage will not be performing ‘The Bible – the Complete Word of God, Abridged’ at Lapham Peak as the event did not meet the provision of the Department agreement requiring all productions to be family oriented,” said Bill Cosh, spokesperson for the DNR.
“It turned into a horrible fiasco,” says Susan Marguet, general counsel of SummerStage. “There was a lot of harassment.”
Brian Faracy, the founder of SummerStage and the producer of the film, is in shock about the decision. “You can’t believe it’s happening,” he says. “This play has been performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington. It’s been performed by church groups in churches. It’s a simple little comedy. The jokes are as old as Moses’s toes. There’s never been a problem with this play anywhere in the United States for 17 years until this guy decided that he alone knows what’s blasphemy.”
Faracy, who also acts in the play, feels for the other people involved in the production. “These people have given up their time, their money, and their efforts, and one bully with a microphone has dismissed them,” he says.
“The DNR wilted” under the pressure, he says. And though he sympathizes with the board of SummerStage, he wishes the members would have put up more of a fight: “The brave thing to do would have been to say, ‘Hey, wait a second.’ ”
Some veterans of the Wisconsin theater community are putting up a fight.
David Cecsarini, who founded Next Act Theatre in Milwaukee 23 years ago, sent a letter out recently to other artistic directors in southern Wisconsin.
“I find it absolutely frightening that such public-opinion censorship can occur, so swiftly and inexorably, over a piece that’s lighter-than-air and just for fun,” he wrote. “What might happen when we produce something that actually merits attention because it does indeed take on controversial subject matter? I believe we all have a stake in this, as producers, as artists, and as citizens.”
Cecsarini is trying to find another venue for the play. “The play needs to be done,” he says. He noted that the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre put the play on seven years ago. “There was nary a peep,” he says. “That some loudmouth can shut this down is just frightening.”
For his part, Eliason applauds the DNR’s decision. “I commend the state of Wisconsin for taking this response,” he told me.
Eliason admits he never saw the play or read the script. “Sir, let me tell you this: I saw enough of the trailers alone to turn my stomach,” he said. The trailer he broadcast on August 9 ran the joke about Moses and the Ten Commandments. Eliason prefaced it by saying: “I almost hesitate to play these words on a Christian station.”
Eliason rails against what he views as a double standard.
“If we were to make fun of the holy book of the Sikhs, we’d be hung in effigy,” he told me. “If you make even a hint of anything disrespectful of the Koran, people die in the streets over that. And yet these people felt they had the right to insult the holy word of God to Christians and people of God all over the area.”
He says it is “open season on Christians” in America. “Christianity is under attack, and we at VCY will do everything we can to defend.”
And he has a warning for the playwrights and the producer and the actors: “For someone to make mockery of the book that Christians regard as the Holy Word and as the title of that debauched play indicates, if you read in the Book of Revelation, it talks about the people who add to, or take from, it. They are condemned to hellfire.”
David Cecsarini's Next Act Theatre has agreed to put on the banned play, "The Bible: The Complete Word of God (Abridged), at, 255 S. Water Street, Milwaukee, WI, 53204.
The run is as follows:
Friday, Aug 31 7:30 Opening
Saturday Sept 1 4:30/7:30
Sunday Sept 2 2:00
Friday Sept 7 7:30
Saturday Sept 8 4:30/7:30
Sunday Sept 9 2:00 Closing
Tickets are being sold through Next Act's box office, at 414-278-0765. or online via this link.
Box office Hours are noon - 5, daily, or through curtain time. Master Card, VISA and Discover.
All seats are $15 general admission seating.
Tickets already sold through SummerStage will be honored. Please call the box office to arrange for exchange.
Directions to Next Act Theatre, 255 S. Water Street
Traveling south from downtown on Water Street: cross the bridge at Erie Street, go to first stoplight (Pittsburgh Ave.) Turn left onto Pittsburgh, (east), drive 2 blocks, turn right onto South Water Street. Parking available on south side of building.
Coming from the South on 1st street: turn right (east) onto Pittsburgh Ave., drive 2 blocks, turn right onto South Water Street.
From West on I-94: continue through I-794 east, exit Jackson Street, continue south through Third Ward 2 blocks, turn right onto Chicago and go 2 blocks, then left onto MIlwaukee Street. Continue across the river bridge and take a quick left onto South Water Street.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Todd Akin Puts Paul Ryan on the Spot."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter