Smiles and Brimstone 

Ten Red Hen's Clown Bible is surprisingly successful.

In the wrong hands, a clown show based on the Bible could be something horribly insipid, but it becomes something hilarious, haunting, and unexpectedly challenging in the hands of the relatively new Oakland company Ten Red Hen, the same hands that converted the old Willard Middle School metal shop into a performance space to host last year's no-budget (the 99-cent) Miss Saigon. That first show was a hard act to follow, but Clown Bible is better.

The show plays fast and loose with Scripture, but it creates some thought-provoking connections in the process. The way Job's face-off with God leads directly to the birth of Jesus is shocking, and yet somehow altogether right.

From the point where Adam and Eve pluck red noses from the Tree of Knowledge, it's clear that this is a clown show, and the performers' distinct personas carry them through many biblical roles. Ned Brauer's sad and desperate mien works as well for Saul as it did for Adam, and Kazumi Kusano's impish, pulling-wings-off-flies baby-doll sensuality sees her through Eve, eye-gouging Nahash, one of the supposed mothers petitioning Solomon, and the queen of Sheba. Issabella P. Shields' dorky, pink-caped clown underlies both hapless, tap-dancing Moses and sulky, sultry Delilah, and Will Howard's gaping grin gives an insidious charm to brutish Cain and uncontrollable Samson.

Jane Chen, who served as clown coach for the cast, oversees the action as God, an imperious silhouette in a dress with a megaphone behind a second-story screen, issuing orders and occasionally dropping sacks of props through a chute. She also plays an intensely vulnerable and often-pissy Jesus, and Satan through a sock-puppet snake, sometimes simultaneously.

That this is a jealous and fearsome God is made clear at the outset, as the ensemble sings in an upbeat Tin Pan Alley-style number, I love this God of mine/She scares me out of my mind.

The songs by Dave Malloy, who leads the band on piano and later doubles as Job and Judas, are often darned catchy. Also haunting is Job's anguished waltz duet with a boastful God, and the melancholy laughing song of Sarah (Alexis P. Wong).

The magic of the show lies less in any great spectacle of circus arts than in the way it can turn from funny to devastating in an instant, and how it makes you look at these old stories in a new way.

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