Sunday, October 1, 2023

"The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord" by Bucket Brigade at Art House North

My favorite kind of play is a two-hander - just two people sitting in a room talking. The awkwardly titled The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord one-ups that model - it's just three people sitting in a room talking. Specifically, three historical figures, great writers and thinkers, who are discussing deeply philosophical issues. But despite the deep issues discussed, it's actually a very funny and light-hearted play. Deep thoughts, humor, great performances, 95 minutes no intermission, a cozy and intimate space, and free cookies and coffee before the show - what more could you ask for? See Bucket Brigade's production of this smart, funny, thought-provoking, and engaging play now through October 14 at Art House North in St. Paul's West 7th neighborhood.

Even though America's 3rd president Thomas Jefferson and two of the greatest writers of the 19 Century (Englishman Charles Dickens and Russian Leo Tolstoy) died decades apart, in this play they somehow all arrive in the afterlife together. The afterlife in this case is a stark prison cell with chipped paint and a metal desk with three chairs. They soon discover that they're locked in, with no instructions of how to get out and move on to whatever comes next. They spend some time trying to figure out what they all have in common, and eventually realize that they all wrote an interpretation of the life of Jesus Christ, the center of Christianity. This leads them to believe that they need to synthesize these three works (the Jefferson Bible, a literal cut and paste from the Christan Bible; Dicken's The Life of Our Lord, written for his children; and Tolstoy's The Gospel in Brief). But they fail to agree on anything; Dickens has a more traditional view of the miracles and divinity of Jesus, while Jefferson and Tolstoy stress his teachings and good works, without the mystical elements. It's only when they each admit to their failings on earth (infidelity, greed, owning slaves) that the key to their philosophies, and the door, is unlocked. 

Damian Leverett, Ben Shaw, and Brandt Roberts
(photo courtesy of Bucket Brigade)
The play is well-staged by director Jeffrey S. Miller in the intimate space of Art House North, on a stark gray angular set. The momentum and the discussions keep moving, with scenes differentiated by a blackout accompanied by an eclectic selection of music snippets, slight furniture rearrangement, and a quote or title projected on the back wall, giving us a clue what we're in for next. Up close and personal, the strong trio of actors ably personifies each of these iconic and very different figures. Damian Leverett is the elegant statesman Jefferson, Ben Shaw is the passionate and volatile Tolstoy, and Brandt Roberts is the arrogant Dickens, constantly quoting his own works. Each of them is dressed appropriate to their life and time period (scenic design by Sarah Pierucki, lighting and sound design by Shannon Elliott, composition by Obadiah Gamble, and costume design by Barb Portinga).

You don't have to be Christian to enjoy this play, it's actually more of a philosophical and intellectual discussion than a religious one. I definitely lean more towards the Jefferson/Tolstoy side of the debate, particularly with the former's staunch belief in the separation of Church and State (something people often conveniently forget about the founding fathers) and the latter's practice of non-violence. But no matter where you fall on the spectrum of ideas discussed, it's a fascinating debate about faith, philosophy, and humanity.

Bucket Brigade's The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord plays Fridays and Saturdays through October 14, with a pay-as-you're-able performance on Monday the 9th.