This play has always been shrouded in controversy. From its initial staging in 1998, to death threats to the playwright Terrance McNally; it has always been a challenge to bring it to fruition. And this production is no exception. After being pulled from Iron Crow Theater Company by the cast, it was remounted as a staged reading at Fells Point Corner Theater for one night only- the original opening night, Friday April 6th.
The play depicts Jesus- called Joshua in the production- as a gay man in 1950s Texas. As he discovers himself and walks toward his destiny, he finds his calling in his apostles- men he loves and befriends along the way. He goes through the arc of finding himself in High School, to journeying in the desert, and finally facing his crucifixion. His ideas of self love and awareness are as radical as that man he resembles 2000 years earlier.
A staged reading is just that- there are generally no props, set, lighting, sound, etc. Just actors bringing a story to life. The chairs were laid out as thirteen in a row (think last supper) with each character having an assigned seat. They often step up and forward to engage in a scene, and return to their seats when not “on-stage.” Mohammad R. Suaidi opens this play for us with a bowl of water, as he calls forth each actor and says their names. I mean their real names. He “Christians” them with their apostle name and then each responds hysterically to tackling the role assigned to them. Each one seemed so full of life and personality, from Patrick Gorirossi’s declarations that “character actor means short,” to Ian Andrew taunting you because Thaddeus was a hairdresser (“you got a problem with that?”)- they were all boisterous and engaging. The audience laughed, cackled, clapped, and realized they were in a for one hell of a ride.
Justin Johnson as Bartholomew was hysterical from the jump. As Mohammad douses him in water he breaks the fourth wall to ask if this is the same water they used all week in rehearsal. He is a doctor after all, and needs to cure men’s bodies, not just their souls. His counterpart, and later husband, is Jonathon Lightner as James. James has the pens in pocket, glasses pushing iconic mechanisms of a teacher. His dorky laugh and recants of that “I love that” when discussing wall maps solidify his character. It is quite the switch when only a few moments later he is the one writhing in his chair in the throws of ecstasy as background noise for Joshua’s birth in a seedy motel.
Chris Cotterman and David Brasington are apostles (James “the less,” and Peter respectively) who double as shit-kicking cowboys with homo-erotic tendencies. Judas first meets Joshua in the men’s’ room at prom because these two were going to teach him what a swirly is. Their shift from tough strong-arms to loving and openly gay disciples is no small feat, and they accomplish it an astounding number of times on stage.
I was slightly disappointed that Nicholas Miles didn’t sing for us. He was a singer before becoming a disciple and said he had a wonderful voice. After seeing him in other productions, I do not doubt his canary bird abilities and felt a little robbed I didn’t get to see him really belt it out. Matthew Lindsay Payne was an apostle, but his most compelling double of the evening was as James Dean- a mirage to tempt Joshua to deny he was the son of God. His smirk, hair, and popped shoulder with hand in pocket sealed the deal for the character. He slithers out of the characterization a bit as his true identity as a tempter is revealed. And Tavish Forsyth was most alluring as the English teacher that Joshua played Chess with and possibly longed after in a weird, motherly affectionate creepy way. Forsyth’s posture and southern draw were entrancing.
My favorite character doubling of the night was Paul America as Mary and Matthew. As Mary he gave birth in a motel and had all of these “mother-isms” that made the entire audience chuckle. When the teacher tells her Joshua is “exceptional,” and she says, “yeah, I’ve been hearing that his whole life, I am still waiting.” The deadpan delivery was of a mom bogged down by her duties, and we all felt it. Nick Maka was a casually cool Judas, channeling a little more James Dean himself than traitor, he seems to toy with Joshua more than fall head over heels in love with him. Their story is believable though, and founded when he sells him, hugs him, and looks away. And last but not least is Sean Dynan. I suspect, something like Chrissy Teigen’s tweets, there is some comical affect in saying you are playing the role of Jesus/Joshua. I would use it as an excuse for everything- like, Hello I’m Jesus. He plays the character with such conviction, he is confused, and sounds crazy when he tells his prom date his deepest secret is he hears hammering his whole life. But nowadays a Xanax would be prescribed and none of this would have happened- so there’s that. He is childish at times, and regal at others. He is slighted at times, and a martyr at others. His dual-natured take on a man trying to fill shoes too big for this world was timely and effective and opens the door for so much discussion on religion, belief, and what a man is meant to be. I did not at first think he was Joshua, there was an awkward moment with he and Judas on stage where you aren’t sure which is which. But after the desert scene with Payne, he confirmed that the right actor was cast in the right part.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Well, you should have gone. This was epic. And a monumental step for Baltimore Theater. The story was irreverent, but also thought-provoking and comical. It made me question what I believe and why, and if another adaptation makes me change my stance. I think a stiff drink with the cast could be very enlightening- for several different reasons. (I)
At Fells Point Corner Theater- 2nd floor- Friday 4/6 only. Sorry fam.