From the medieval Shipwrights’ Guilds building boats for Bible plays to the Richard Rodgers musical, “Two By Two” (revived last Winter at the York Theatre), the story of Noah’s Ark has inspired dramatists throughout history. Now comes “At the Ark at Eight,” a multimedia black comedy about a pair of wily penguins that smuggle a third penguin on board the ark in a suitcase.
Based on German author Ulrich Hub’s children’s book, “Meet at the Ark at Eight,” which won a National Jewish Book Award last year, it runs through Dec. 29 at the ArcLight Theater on the Upper West Side. Ellina Graypel wrote the original music and Njordy Jovanovich created the video clips.
Produced by Steps Theatre in Brooklyn, “At the Ark” is directed by Anna Nesterova and overseen by Steps’ founder, Russian director Slava Stepnov. While it is billed as suitable for both children and adults, the 75-minute play asks searching questions about whether or not God exists and what kind of deity would destroy its own creation. The production comes at a time when Darren Aronofsky’s new film, “Noah,” with Russell Crowe in the title role, has reportedly angered both Christian and Jewish religious audiences in preview screenings with its divergence from the story in the Book of Genesis.
Adam Swartz plays the third penguin as a tuxedo-clad poet sporting horn-rimmed glasses. In an interview, he compared “At the Ark” with Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” in that the “trampy, strange” penguins inhabit a wasteland of snow and ice, and then find themselves, on board the ship, in a situation of utter “absurdity” and “extremity of circumstances.” Swartz said that the play “opens up a floodgate of questions about what it means to come out the other side of an apocalyptic experience.”
Stepnov, who directed an acclaimed 2008 Russian-language production of I.B. Singer’s “Enemies, a Love Story,” works in the avant-garde tradition of the postmodern German theater artist Heiner Muller and the New York experimental troupe, The Wooster Group — both are known for placing value on sound and spectacle over written text. In an email, he told The Jewish Week that the existential play “brings up very deep and serious questions about people and God, but in an amusing way.”
Just as Bible stories can be interpreted in different ways, Stepnov noted, “artists can see something new in well-known concepts,” creating what he called “new senses” that enable them to plumb these “newly discovered depths,” finding new meanings while keeping old ones afloat.
“At the Ark at Eight” runs at the ArcLight Theatre, 152 W. 71st St., through Sunday, Dec. 22. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m. For tickets, $18, call the box office at (212) 841-5454 or visit www.stepstheatre.com