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Jesus

at the Agassiz July 17-19, 22-26, 29-Aug. 2

By Peter Jaszi

BLOBBING DAMPLY up the grand stairway of the Agassiz Theatre, to keep his appointment with Timothy Mayer's masterful staging of Jesus (A Passion Play for Cambridge), this reviewer passed by Peter W. Johnson--a Technical Director qualified to retire the title--locked in brief colloquy with a bearded minion. A conversation was overheard. Quoth the minion: "There are no more weights." Replied Johnson: "Well...use anything."

Use anything. Properly qualified, this elliptical phrase will do to summarize the working aesthetic of the latest effort by the Harvard Dramatic Club Summer Players, a group which has been forming elegantly, there four summers now, in the center ring of our sweaty free-form carnival. That qualification, then: Use anything--from a Times Square News Flasher heralding the scenes to a case of Carling Black Label in the New Tankard Cans at the Last Supper--but use it only with the tact of art, the high decorum which subsists in the meetness of technique and purpose.

And what purpose? More to come of this. First however, a DIGRESSION ON IRONY, on the striking--or fortuitous--juxtapositions which brings the easy laugh or the satisfied and satisfying smirk, on the most promiscuously overtaxed on present literary and theatrical modes. There is no smidgen of irony in this production of Jesus, though certain of its devices, described here outside their stage context, will inevitably suggest the reverse. The hundreds of vivid and contemporary visual references with which Mr. Mayer has leavened this text--derived exclusively (excepting the interpolated songs) from the King James Version, Gospels and Apocrypha--are not, I think, to be take as acid annotations on either the myth they illustrate or the times which produced their referant images. Rather they serve to make unexpectedly immediate a story which it may seem has been literally told to death. Not so long ago, the armband had brief life in this town as the visible emblem of a curious sort of self-election. When the disciple in Jesus make their first appearance, wearing their armbands, both they and our strike that was gain a little in dignity.

The primary question raised by the New Testament legend is presently unanswerable: "Why that man, at that time and place?" Discreetly, this production chooses to preserver that primary mystery, eschewing, for example, the tempting version of Christ as activist-charismatic--the ultimate field organizer. Instead, this passion play battens on the mystery itself, as it moves toward an answer to a major secondary query: "Whence the preternatural staying power of this simple narrative?"

THE QUESTION can be given biblical form: "Can these bones live?" (Or even examination form: "If so, why? Discuss.") But the task of response seems especially appropriate for the stage, as theatrical adaptation has a way of giving back lost things to those who had a way of giving back lost things to those who had suffered--or willed--to lose them. And the style of this response is in the look of the production, formed out of sets, bodies, props and costumes in compositions too powerful to be ignored. The rightness of these aggregations does not reduce easily, but a few examples may serve by way of illustration.

Neither time nor text, for one, allows a full characterization for each of the twelve disciples; but a device must be found to break their identification with the traditional figures of religious art, from Da Vinci canvases to plaster saints. So the disciple of this staging are cast and pressed as street people, marked in dress and aspect by the miles behind and the miles ahead. Together, they resemble both a juvenile gang and a disreputable pick-up football team. Separately, they evoke overtones: St. John (Lloyd Schwartz) suggests a veteran of the Sierra Maestra, while St. Matthew (Michael Dobson) has the face, though not the demeanor, of a Renaissance devotional subject brought to life--the broken image partially and unexpectedly restored. Both consume much of their time on stage copying the utterances of Jesus (Andreas Teuber) into pocket notebooks.

The staging of the crucifixion provides another prime example of Mr. Mayer's stagecraft of restoration. The use of a grand, reflective aluminum cruxifix--totally unrustic and aggressively mechanical--renews one's sense of horror in an etiolated atrocity. No measure of guignol, no matter how richly sanguinary, no matter how grande could accomplish this alone.

Credit then, goes to the director--and to designer Howard Cutler, who also portrays St. Thomason stage--for exposing visually one of two sources vitality in the Gospel narrative: the perfect mythical shape which renders it as any other of the few basic stories with which men have chosen to beguile and terrify one another.

The elucidation of a second source or vitality in the story lies with a number of remarkable performances. Reacting variously to their Christ, a number of supporting players establish the fascinating ineffability of his presence. Though they are too many to note fully here, these players include Ken Tiger's sympathetic and sublet Pilate, Arthur Friedman's carefully modulted Caiaphas, Woody Lorriman's magnificently emotional Mary Magdalene.

But it Teuber himself who puts the stigma of ultimate mystery on the figure of Jesus. An actor of extraordinary range, his performance is theatrically protean. Teuber's Christ is by turns a performer, a teacher, an advocate, as well as men and God. Playing always to an audience among the other characters--whether to his disciples, his accusers, or the crowd at large--he reserves the essential personality of Christ himself. Where acting styles are concerned, "use anything" would appear to be Teuber's operating principle, no less that that of the entire remarkable show, including Peter Ivers' electric eclectic and near continuous score. The result preserves the mystery within the myth.

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