A Closer Walk with He: Mustard Seed Theatre counts Christs, plus one Imaginary Jesus

Julie Venegoni and Robert Thibaut.
Julie Venegoni and Robert Thibaut. John Lamb

A Closer Walk with He: Mustard Seed Theatre counts Christs, plus one Imaginary Jesus

Imaginary Jesus
Through December 2 at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Center Theatre, 6800 Wydown Boulevard, Clayton.
Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors). Call 314-719-8060 or visit www.mustardseedtheatre.com.

Imaginary Jesus is the story of one man — the author and main character, Matt Mikalatos — and his quest to forge a closer, more personal relationship with Jesus. To do so, Matt (Robert Thibaut) teams up with the Narrator (Chad Morris), a projection his own consciousness; St. Peter (J. Samuel Davis); and a donkey named Daisy (Michelle Hand) who happens to be a theological adviser/investigator. The path to communion is obstructed by all the false representations of Jesus available these days — Political Power Jesus, Legal Jesus, Testosterone Jesus, Circus Jesus — each personified by various members of the ensemble. Matt's own personal Jesus, Imaginary Jesus (Justin Ivan Brown), is his main problem, however; Imaginary Jesus is comforting, familiar and rather likable, which makes leaving him behind both difficult and frightening.

That all gives the impression of a rather serious spiritual journey, and it is, but not until the second act. The first half of the play is more of a zany comedy, as Pete and Matt and the Narrator chase Imaginary Jesus through the city of Portland, a set of mobile triangular pods backed by the forested peaks of the cardboard Cascade Range, cleverly designed by Dunsi Dai for this Mustard Seed Theatre production. The fake-Christ-busting trio breaks into safe houses where the false Jesi hide out, settle theological debates via a downhill tubing race and encounter Motorcycle Guy (Daniel Lanier), a power-ballad-singing straight shooter who helps Matt and the Narrator clear their shared head.

Deanna Jent adapted the play from Mikalatos' novel of the same name, and she gives the script a knowing, self-referential sense of humor that serves it well. Fourth walls are broken, Matt and the Narrator argue about just how pointedly they can skewer the modern "Warrior Jesus" movement, and Imaginary Jesus (the character) is aware of his status as a false construct of Matt's mind and of his spiritual malaise — but he doesn't want to be abandoned, either. It's complicated, and often very funny both as satire and as situational comedy.

There's less of that sitcom feel in Act Two, as Matt finally comes clean about the cause of his crisis of faith and honestly confronts his problems with Christ. The switch catches the viewer off-guard, even after the buffer of intermission cookies. And yet Imaginary Jesus makes more of an impact as a serious drama about a man's waning spirituality than it does as a comedy. Morris' Narrator slips into the background, leaving Thibaut to carry the weight as an actor. He does so admirably, capturing the bitter rage of a man who was disappointed by his God as well as the profound sense of loss that comes with being spiritually adrift. In an echo of the Last Supper, Matt and Pete share a simple meal with Mary (Amy Loui), the mother of Jesus. Davis says very little in the scene but radiates a serene happiness, while Loui talks about seeing her son crucified and what it meant to her as a person and as a mother to witness that. In the silence that follows her tale, she touches the cross around her neck and asks Matt, "Do you know how painful it is for me to wear this?"

Loui lays down the line softly, a burden she has carried for millennia. It's a powerful scene, affectingly played by all three actors. As enjoyable as the irreverence is in the first half of the play, it's the reverence in Imaginary Jesus that matters. 

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