2014 Edmonton Fringe Review: Tobit

In the Second Century BC, for reasons scholars have not been able to determine, the Book of Tobit was excluded from the Jewish Tanakh and remained solely in the providence of Catholics for most of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. However, the Dead Sea Scrolls confirmed that the story predates Christ and the Israeli religious community have begun to reclaim Tobit for themselves.

It comes (or rather...came...) to the Edmonton Fringe in the form of "Tobit", a full length semi-musical about the account of Tobit, a faithful Jew who suffers both banishment from society and later blindness, before the angels of the Lord come to rescue him and bring joy to his family. Though the play drags on at times and contains some time-filling elements that weren't necessary with its 95 minute runtime, it is a well acted and engaging performance about the biblical tale come to life. It is almost nothing like "The Hobbit", despite what some cleverly timely advertising for the play would have you believe.

It opens with a monologue from the lead character (Tobit is played quite ably by John Moerschbacher, who because of the spelling of his last name will never ever ever be referred to for the rest of this review), setting the biblical stage for us and opening the scene: as with so many biblical stories, the best drama seems already to be over. Tobit's decades of exile are already coming to a close, and while Jews still aren't the most popular folks around he can show his face in public...even if the townspeople aren't impressed by him giving every dead Jew a burial. This is expressed in one of the rare (thankfully!) cutaways to the three gossiping bimbos: Naama (Shanni Pinkerton), Adina (Martina Gasparlin), and Ovadya (Hollie Emerick). I know they want to throw some more female characters into the mix, but these three girls always seem like they're a millisecond away from proclaiming "but first...lemme take a selfie!" and make it look less like the townspeople still haven't accepted Tobit and more like he said something unkind about Katy Perry during one of his burials. Regardless, as Tobit is out burying another body, a seagull shits in his eyes and blinds him.

Cut ahead a few more years, and Tobit's son Tobias (Christian Pawlowski) is still living at home, either recently a man or almost a man but somehow not supporting his parents (sounds like most basement-dwelling 20-somethings today) while Tobit's wife Anna does odd jobs around the town for money. Tobit tries his best to keep a level head about things and not lose his faith, but it can be hard...especially when you lost your eyesight because of a goddamned (pardon the pun) seagull. Tobit suddenly remembers that he's got a whole bunch of money in the bank...or buried under a rock...or in his cousin's wallet...or something...in distant Media. It's a couple three weeks journey, so Tobit sends his son to find a traveling companion. He does, quickly returning with Azarius (Dave Kantor) who looks and sounds suspicious as all get out: he claims to be a relative of Tobit's, the son of a distant relation who Tobit is pretty sure didn't have any kids. Despite the fact that this apparently perfect traveler showed up eleven femtoseconds into the search and seems coincidentally way too convenient, Tobit sends Tobias out on the road at once. Anna is heartbroken, fearing the loss of their only child on the dangerous roads with a guy who's probably not on the up and up.

We cut away to Sarah (Meaghan Sheehan), a pretty girl whose husband has just died on her wedding night. Again. Again. Turns out this is hubby #7 to be offed before the consummation could be performed, and servants Deborah (Nimet Kanji) and Dinah (Emanuelle Dubbledam) find this more than a little bit suspicious. Deborah, in decidedly super-duper non-servant behaviour confronts Sarah about her murderous ways and basically murder-slut-shaming her to tears. As the servants leave, Sarah prays to God to stop killing potential mates...at least until she can get some nookie or some land out of the deal.

Back on the road, Azarius is explaining to Tobias that before they get to Media they are going to visit his first cousin three times removed, who has a beautiful daughter named Sarah that is in need of a good boning even though she's cursed by a demon that keeps killing her suitors. While he's processing this new development, Tobias goes down to the river to wash himself and almost gets eaten by a medium sized fish. No, this doesn't make any sense. Meanwhile back at the ranch Anna's spidey sense must be tingling up a storm, as her son is clearly an inch away from his own demise for the entire tale. Fortunately Tobias survives, and at Azarius's insistence whomps the little crossocheilus on the noggin and drags him to camp. Conveniently enough, Azarius explains that various body parts of this fish will, in no particular order:
1) Cure the injury to an ankle caused by its own bite
2) Instantly return the eyesight of an old man who was blinded by seagulls
3) Banish demons who kill men on their wedding night

Yet still Tobius thinks that Azarius being there is a really really great stroke of luck rather than, the increasingly obvious answer, of a massive and almost literal deus ex machina wandering around next to him. They make their way to Tobit's long-lost cousin Raguel (Bob Locicero) and his wife Edna (Marilla Currie-Wasney), who sense something important and familiar about the young man at their door. Once they learn the that Tobias is their own kin, they are both elated to learn that they are hosting family, and frightened when Tobias boldly declares that he is going to ask for his second cousin Sarah's hand in marriage (as is his right, as her closest living relative, ancient Judaism being basically indistinguishable from present-day Saskatchewan). There's a pretty funny scene where Raguel and Edna, convinced that Sarah's personal demon will continue his killing spree, begrudgingly and ruefully begin preparations to haul Tobias's dead ass out of Sarah's bedroom and bury him out back with the others...more funny since we already know Tobias is going to turn out all right: after all, we got the ridiculous fish foreshadowing.

I think ultimately the biggest issue with this play for the modern audience is the whole fish body parts gag: it may have worked 2200 years ago, but for the modern audience that knows every trick that M. Night Shyamalan can throw at us, it makes it a little too clear that Tobit's eyesight and Sarah's wedding are going to be fixed. Had the play been tweaked so that Azarius didn't give so much very very very specific knowledge about what the various fish parts were to be used for (and then also told us explicitly that Sarah's former would-be-lovers were all killed by a demon that the fish guts would kill and/or ward off), there could have been some ambiguity in the final result (or, barring that, the final execution). Also a giant drag on this play are some of the musical numbers...I understand they are used to kill some time between scene changes, but only Locicero and Sheehan have the singing voices to elevate any of the musical material (though Kantor can at least hold his own with his big closing number). When the singing is done by Moersch--er, the Tobin Guy...well, it's pretty bad. He does a great job speaking Tobit's monologue, is decent though occasionally wooden acting the main character, there's no need to test out and see if he can sing as well. It also doesn't help that the songs themselves have the energy and musical variance of a hymnal...they fit the tone of the play, yes, but that tone is such a somber downer that its just too depressing to carry out in song. They weren't going to go Andrew Lloyd Weber here, and there was no reason to think they needed to.

In the end, though, Tobit is a well crafted piece of theatre that just needed to be trimmed and paced a little better, otherwise wringing excellent performances out of their cast. The Tobin guy is, as noted, starting off strong and losing steam a bit throughout. Sheehan and Kantor are very good at projecting their characters, and while Kanji gets overbearing in some of her performances she's at least chewing some scenery to enjoy herself. The highlight is Bob Locicero's Raguel, however: Locicero brings that man to life, and projects all the power and sympathy and nuances into the character that are required.

Final word: A solid telling of a Jewish morality tale, but it will make you have a new dread for that Selfie Song.

(for more reviews of the 2014 Edmonton Fringe, click here)