Saturday, March 30, 2013

"Kingdom Undone" by Theater for the Thirsty at Southern Theater

Kingdom Undone is a new passion play - a dramatization of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, the pivotal event in the Christian tradition. It's a familiar story to those of us who grew up in the tradition (and a timely one, as many are celebrating Easter this weekend). Kingdom Undone stays true to that tradition, but this new adaptation by Jeremiah Gamble feels fresh and modern, with moments of humor, music (written by husband and wife team Jeremiah and Vanessa Gamble, aka Theater for the Thirsty), and a lighter touch, despite the obvious darkness in the story. I found it to be entertaining and well done; it moved even this neo-Pagan-Unitarian-Universalist-Yogi. It's a powerful story; there's a reason that it has moved many over the centuries and inspired a movement. It's also a story that has been contorted, abused, and used, but when it serves to inspire, uplift, and perhaps help one to be a better and kinder person, that's when the story is at its best.

When I saw the promotional materials for Kingdom Undone (it premiered last year, with the current remount ending this weekend), I assumed that the central figure in the image was Jesus. Not so, it's Dustin Bronson's very charismatic and sympathetic Judas, infamous as the man who betrayed his teacher for 40 pieces of silver. This play, in a way, is the story of Judas and his relationship with Jesus and his teachings. Unfortunately he has a very literal interpretation of Jesus' stories about the coming of a kingdom. One wishes someone would play the part of Nabalungi's friend in that other great theater piece about faith, The Book of Mormon, who tells her "it's a metaphor, we're not really going to Salt Lake City." But Judas believes that Jesus will literally call down armies of angels to overthrow the Romans, and thinks that he's playing his part in the plan when he turns Jesus over to be tried, and eventually crucified. He's devastated when he realizes that this is no political game.

Highlights of the show include:
  • The creators of the piece also play central roles. Jeremiah plays Jesus as a calm, loving, and somewhat conflicted leader. Vanessa is Magdalena, a spirited and loyal follower, and lends her beautiful voice to the music (see also I am Anne Frank). Janet Hanson plays Mary, mother of Jesus, as a spunky redhead, a very human woman in a nice contrast to that untouchable otherwordly image often seen. She lets out a gut-wrenching, primal scream at the death of her son that cuts right to the heart. Nicholas Leeman provides some comic relief as the good-natured but slightly clueless disciple James. The rest of the large ensemble ably fill in all the roles in the story, from followers to soldiers.
  • The music is great and is used sparingly to add to the story (this isn't Jesus the musical, that's already been done). I especially liked the hopeful opening number, which was repeated at the end. Michael Pearce Donley directs the five-piece band, which includes an upright bass and violin, and sounds lovely. There's some nice choreography, both fighting and dancing. Especially lovely is when an angel (Kelli Warder) visits Jesus in his darkest hour and physically and spiritually lifts him up.
  • The stage at the Southern looks gorgeous, as usual. It's a perfect setting for this story, regal and historic, filled with colored lanterns and brightly patterned fabric, like the amazing technicolor dreamcurtain (set design by Jeremy Barnett). The costumes (by Nadine Grant) are a shabby-chic mix of modern and ancient. Audience member seated on the floor of the stage looked, to my vantage point in the theater seats, like a part of the story - more followers or citizens of Jerusalem witnessing the events of the story.
Kingdom Undone is a well-done new adaptation of a familiar story, one that's well-acted, colorful, musical, and uplifting.