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Arts: Actor takes Genesis from Bible to stage

By Carrie Humphreys
For the Observer

Whatever role Bill Oberst Jr. tackles on stage, he does it with majestic aplomb. His dramatic recitation of “Genesis” will be no exception. He exudes passion as he describes the ancient stories written in the first book of the Hebrew Bible (the Tanakh) and the Christian Old Testament.

“Genesis is the story of all of us,” Oberst said of his latest theatrical venture premiering at the Strand Theater next week. “Genesis’ appeals to me because it is a story about where we all came from. Our common roots. I’m much more interested in our commonalities than our differences.”

Not everyone takes Genesis literally, Oberst acknowledges. Some people see it as scripture, some as history and some as literature.

“I’m just presenting the story as it was told so many thousands of years ago and people will take it as they will. I’m not preaching or proselytizing and not encouraging people to think anything at all,” Oberst said. “I hope that people will move out of their arguments of whether the world was created in seven days, or any of the arguments, and just hear the words. I want to present the stories because of the humanity of them.”

The 50 chapters of Genesis, whose authorship is traditionally ascribed to Moses, include The Creation, The Fall, Abraham, Jacob and Esau, Joseph And His Brothers, among others. The Hebrew name for the book, Bereshit, literally means in the beginning (also the first words of the text.) The word “genesis” is a translation of a Greek word meaning origin.

Oberst said that in his personal life he reads from the scriptures daily, but that he just recently read the whole book of Genesis from beginning to end. “And when I finished, I thought, wow what a great story. I called my manager – who is Jewish and knows the story of Genesis – and he agreed, likening it to a ‘soap opera.’ So I was drawn to it and looked it up to see who had done Genesis on stage. And I couldn’t find anyone.”

Oberst has memorized Genesis in its entirety, but has cut the text down to 90 minutes, and will likely include some personal asides, he said. It’s not a reenactment, there are no costumes involved. He’ll wear a suit, or loose tunic and does not attempt to portray the characters.

“Its really about the power of the words,” he said. “It’s not boring. It’s about people like us, about those who lie, cheat, kill, all the human frailties.”

The trick is how to present God. Oberst sees him as parental, urging. But don’t expect a Charlton Heston imitation.

“I don’t see God with a big, booming voice. I think more of a whisper,” Oberst said.

A Georgetown native living in Los Angeles, Oberst returns to South Carolina for the holidays and his annual appearance at Brookgreen Gardens in his one man adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” He kicks off “Genesis” at the Strand Theater where he began his acting career many years ago.

Oberst has made a success out of being “the horror guy.” He said he’s content with his reputation as the King of Creep, a modern day version of Vincent Price or Boris Karloff. “I’m not young and I’m not pretty and that relieves a lot of pressure for me,” he said. “I’m a character actor and I’ve finally found my niche in Hollywood. Most of my characters are bad guys.”

He’s appeared in over 102 projects in his five years in Los Angeles, he said, including recent roles on Hallmark’s Movie Channel called “The Shunning” and “The Confession.” He may be best known as the Facebook Stalker in the online “Take This Lollipop” which earned him a Daytime Emmy in 2012.

He said his “Genesis” performance will be a nice change of pace and, literally, the realization of a dream. “I kept dreaming about doing this, over and over” he said, “and finally I just said ‘OK Lord, if you’ll show me what to do, I’ll do it.’ And, as usual, he did.”

One-man shows are an Oberst specialty and include portrayals of Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Lewis Grizzard, plus narratives like last season’s “Wierd Tales,” which he also launched locally. Oberst relishes live theater. He plans to tour “Genesis” in synagogues, churches and educational institutions.

Is he nervous to appear in the new production? Indeed. “There’s a lot of material to know. And I can’t ad-lib,” he said.

Oberst admits that his life as an actor, playing the bad guy, has resulted in him giving more thought to human nature. “You think, what would make a person kill or rape or rob, things I would never do? Genesis is full of human nature. Even if you don’t take it as fact, there is truth,” he said. “For instance, whether you believe that an actual flood happened or not, there is truth in the way that Noah and his family react.”

These big, human stories can be very emotional, Oberst said. “I may weep. We’ll see.”

In preparing the project Oberst said he realized more than ever that he was even less important than he thought he was.

“When you go back to the beginnings of time and space, your own insignificance becomes a reality. We like to think we are important, when really, compared to this cosmic backdrop, I feel tiny, tiny, tiny.”

Oberst tried for a text that is faithful to the original language and fresh and clear to the ear, using both The Amplified Bible and The Jewish Publication Society’s Tanakh. “There are a few surprises in the original language,” he said.

“For instance in the Creation story the Spirit of God is also translated as a wind from God, which broods upon the face of the great deep … the language is alive and vibrant. However you choose to take it, every one of us can come to ‘Genesis’ and learn something about ourselves. It is the story of how we began and a good story to begin the New Year.”

If you go

What: “Genesis,” adapted and read by Bill Oberst Jr.

Where: Strand Theater

When: Jan. 11 at 4 and 7 p.m.

How much: $15. Call 527-2924 for tickets.

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