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The Gospel of John

Theatre Review by James Wilson - December 8, 2019

Ken Jennings
Photo by Maria Baranova
As audience members took their seats for The Gospel of John at the Sheen Center, Ken Jennings, the show's solo performer, paced around and across the performance area. I overheard one person remark that the actor seemed to be "casing the joint," but clutching a Bible and muttering to himself, a more accurate description might be that he was consecrating the space.

When the play was about to begin, Jennings offered the usual reminders about cellphones, photography, and the location of emergency exits. He also explained that, unlike other theatre productions, this would be a very informal affair, and people should feel free to stretch their legs, leave, and come back if they so desired. Since he had, as he said, "memorized the piece as a prayer rather than as a performance," he would not be disturbed by such interruptions.

The Gospel of John opens with the famous lines, "In the beginning was the word. The word was with God, the word was God." What follows is a word-for-word recitation of the last of the four gospels in the New Testament. Although Jennings' delivery includes moments of reflection, and there are meditative passages, this is where the prayer-like comparison ends. Make no mistake about it, in his unfolding of the events leading up to Christ's death and resurrection and in the depiction of the various figures in the gospel, Jennings gives a thrilling performance.

The phrase "tour de force" is often bandied about to distinguish a one-person show. Of course, it takes a great deal of skill and not a small amount of talent to memorize fifty-some pages of text, hold an audience's attention for ninety minutes with limited spectacle, and successfully embody the other characters in the narrative. What makes Jennings' execution all the more remarkable, and especially deserving of the tour-de-force appellation, is his ability to make the discursive, nearly two-millennia-old, literary work pulse with urgency and wonderment.

While the Gospel notably does not include information about Jesus' birth, baptism, and the calling of the twelve disciples, it is still a veritable greatest-hits of Jesus' life. In addition to the persecution, the betrayal, denial, and doubt of the disciples are all included, as are the seven miracles, or "signs." There are accounts, for instance, of Jesus turning water into wine at the Cana wedding, feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, walking on water, and raising Lazarus from the dead. Jennings recounts all of these with the awe fitting of the narrator, who is a self-described disciple "whom Jesus loved."

With direction by John Pietrowski, Jennings animates the biblical figures with distinctive characteristics. John the Baptist, for example, is a gruff, impatient man, who tries to convince a dense following that he is not the Messiah. The disciple Thomas is not a namby-pamby doubter. Here he is adamantly defiant in his vow that unless he can put his fingers in Christ's wounds, he will not be swayed. Most interesting, perhaps, is Jennings' presentation of an exasperated Pontius Pilate. Pilate is caught between a bloodthirsty rabble demanding crucifixion and a recalcitrant Jesus, who will not allow the governor to show mercy and free himself from eternal scorn.

As Jesus, Jennings imbues his interpretation with a mixture of matter-of-factness, compassion, and slight resignation. The approach humanizes the text while gesturing toward the inevitability of the episodes and their spiritual consequences.

Jennings is ably supported by minimal yet effective design elements. Charlie Corcoran's scenery consists of a simple wooden platform, a bench, and shroud-like canvas upstage. The lighting by Abigail Hoke-Brady is alternately moody and beatific, and the sound design by M. Florian Staab unobtrusively introduces restless mobs and natural resonances. The production components in no way distract from Jennings' masterful storytelling.

The performance took me back to my childhood and my upbringing in the Catholic Church. I particularly remember Palm Sundays in which the mass was twice as long as usual. The familiar rituals were suspended as the priest and various members of the church community presented an unrehearsed and unstaged reading of the Passion. As a kid, I recall squirming in the uncompromising wooden pew and struggling to make sense of the chronicle presented without inflection and, well, passion. This is not to say that my future as a Catholic would have changed, but experiencing the compelling prayer/performance of Ken Jennings might have shown me what all the fuss was about.

The Gospel of John
Through December 29, 2019
The Sheen Center, 18 Bleecker St., New York City
Tickets online and current performance schedule: