James Madison High School
Our modern culture is infused with biblical and mythological references--the stories rooted in the foundation of civilization. These stories hold deeper themes and truths that are often applicable in modern life; however, the challenge lies in presenting them in new and dynamic forms that engage new generations. Such is the complexity of the task Washington-Lee High School undertook with its production of J.B., a modern re-telling of the book of Job. The performance encompassed universal and heart-felt themes while also making use of incredible artistic content.
J.B., written in 1958 by American poet Archibald MacLeish, won multiple Tony awards and a Pulitzer Prize for drama. The play also accrued praise for its free-verse style and direct confrontation of one of the more controversial biblical episodes.
The play-within-a-play begins when two circus vendors decide to act out Job's story, choosing a victim at random to play Job himself. The vendors bet on whether any amount of loss can make such a pious, upstanding man as Job lose his faith in God. The two then proceed to tear apart Job's life piece by piece. The entire "production" is facilitated by circus clowns who present props and act out scenes as various characters.
The cast was small but comprised of many dynamic performers. Cailyn Murray as Squeaks the clown stood out among the circus cast with her constant energy and commitment. Murray may not have had many lines, but she still managed to develop a complex and comedic character through her expressions. Playing Nickles the devil, Nicolas Boone managed to keep his cynical character interesting throughout his extended time on stage. The audience grew deeply invested in his character's slow arc, as the devil himself begins to realize that God isn't necessarily the hero of every story. And handling one of the most emotional and moving roles with heart-breaking realism was Maggy Jenkins, who played Sarah, Job's wife. The cast was filled out with Jojo, the lively clown played by Sylvain Chassagneux, and many other strong performers.
The technical elements in J.B. supplemented the simple and emotional storyline without ever overpowering. The set, designed by Aidan Endo, made use of large circus-themed flags with large, ominous faces that were raised and lowered throughout the show. The props were designed by Cailyn Murray and Emily Kile and were wonderfully tailored to fit the circus theme, complete with an entire dinner made of balloons served at the beginning of the play. The soundscape was naturally minimal, but Maya Elby and Penn Bauman carefully wove different circus music into the show, contributing to humorous scenes, as well as darker, chilling ones. These technical elements seemed perfectly tied together by stage managers Abby Fry and Sidney Fisher, who called cues and kept every sequence in the show perfectly synced.
Washington-Lee High School's production of J.B. explored deeper themes of religion and the existence of good and evil, creating a unique mix of emotional and heart-wrenching plot and comedic circus acting. It seems that even in 2018, there are still things we can learn from the past.
Tuscarora High School
Unyielding faith in the face of unrelenting hardship is an admirable quality. This trait is displayed most famously in the biblical character Job of Uz. With undeniable success, Washington-Lee High School's J.B. retells this faithful devotee's tale.
J.B., a retelling of the Book of Job by U.S. Poet Laureate Archibald MacLeish, follows the story of two circus employees, Mr. Zuss and Mr. Nickles, who take up the roles of God and Satan, respectively, in the play-within-a-play performance of Job's story. Zuss believes that Job, or J.B., will remain faithful to God despite undeserved adversity. Nickles remains confident that J.B. will renounce his lord. To test their hypotheses, the two progressively take away Job's family, livelihood, and health.
Unlike the Bible, in which Job accepts his fate and remains faithful to God, J.B. rejects both God and Satan, instead putting his faith in love.
Esteban Marmolejo-Suarez (J.B.) rattled the audience with his descent into madness. His dedication to the part heightened the emotional impact of every scene, and he convincingly captured the anguish of the broken Job. Maggy Jenkins (Sarah, Job's wife) performed wonderfully in a complex and nuanced role. The final scene between the couple carried incredible power, touching the audience. Ward LeHardy (Mr. Zuss) and Nicolas Boone (Mr. Nickles) both gave fantastic performances, speaking complex prose as if it were modern English. The honesty and thought behind each line allowed the audience to relate to the characters, despite the complicated language. This skill is difficult to perfect, and both actors achieved it with seemingly remarkable ease.
Many actors played more than one character. Remarkably, all performers created different personas for each situation. Most impressive were Lily Pond and Sydney Miller (the Roustabouts) who played more than ten characters between them and still managed to build interesting, unique individuals in every scene. They impressively portrayed characters pretending to be other characters, layering performances to enhance the play-within-a-play that is J.B. Other ensemble standouts were Will LeHardy (Chuckles the clown) and Sylvain Chassagneux (Jojo the clown). The juxtaposition between goofy Chuckles and melancholy Jojo created an entertaining foil-dynamic, allowing them to each have humorous and emotional moments.
The technical elements were remarkable. A simple circus tent-inspired set allowed for many moments of dramatic symbolism. Costumes and makeup juxtaposed the horrifying reality of J.B.'s life with the colorful fantasy of the circus. Makeup also successfully transformed teenage actors into older men and healthy actresses into gory apocalypse victims. Lighting was particularly effective, increasing the shock of the many creative death scenes. Most impressive was the death of the youngest daughter, which featured a terrifying shadow projected onto a curtain, surrounded by red light. The skill of the lighting designers clearly showed in this scene. Every cue in the show was spot on, reflecting well on the stage management and crew. The technical aspects of the show achieved every technician's goal: to allow the actors to deliver the story effectively and to enhance the reality on the stage.
Washington-Lee High School's J.B. is a story of faith and love that is full of anguish but, ultimately, reward. Just like Job, the cast and crew of J.B. were rewarded for their tenacious efforts; their prize was a fantastic performance.