The Gospel of John, based on a new translation by Kalmia Bittleston, directed by Adrian Locher. Produced by Walking the Dog Theater at The Max and Lillian Katzman Theater, Stageworks/Hudson in Hudson, NY.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
It would appear that you can’t do much better, seeking out a playwright, than to get John, the Baptist’s one dramatic work and put it up on your stage. As a writer he has one terrific story, with plot twists and turns that are classic. As a dialogue man he knows how the words play out and he can make even a non-believer tear up when the emotions are at their height. And in a pinch he can even deliver the revelations that give his audience a sense of the elusive happy ending that mars his tale of innocence betrayed, trust and faith obscured and the Man-and-God relationship revealed.
He even makes himself the non-hero in his own play. Not the work of an egotist, clearly. Oddly, in this production, the actor who takes on the role of John, along with a host of other characters, emerges as the central figure even though he claims right up front not to be that man. Maybe this is because the actor employed to take on this heavy task is a wonder. His name is Glen Williamson. As one of three actors on the stage he all-too-often is riveting. His smile is genuine and lights up his face. His scowls are frightening. His eyes are expressive and his voice is more than just that, it has a lyrical quality that would give bad poetry an essence of long-life. As John he is self-effacing; as Pilate he is alternately dynamic and weak; as Peter he is self-loathing. He is one half of the making of this performance.
The other half of the showmanship award goes to Laurie Portocarrero who plays all of the women involved in the life of Jesus and John, and a few of the men as well. Here is an actress with so much control, physically and vocally, that she can morph in and out of roles with ease and a perfection that makes each character specific and real. No character is more real here than the Samaritan at the well. No character is more distraught and feverish than Mary Magdalene at the crypt. She is a wonder to behold in this 100 minute play without intermission. You watch her, listen to her and cannot move or even breathe loudly. She is, in a single word, terrific.
David Anderson who plays Jesus is startlingly aloof. There is a charismatic quality to his appearance and his movement, but there is also something lacking in his communication with others. You want to watch him, hear him, feel his inner power in this character, but you only see the surface of the man, only know his gestures and his staring expression. He delivers his lines with a non-actor’s emphasis, there is importance in his words, but no sensation in them. Even during his crucifixion there is a lack of the person on display. It’s a disappointment in this vast, multi-character drama to have the central character so vague.
Perhaps this is the result of the director’s vision. Adrian Locher has been involved with productions of this play since its inception; this is its American premiere. Without knowledge of the other productions, it is just possible that he chose, for this edition, to concentrate his energies in directions other than Jesus. Perhaps he has seen how audiences react to a more potent performance of that central role and has decided to concentrate on the people around Jesus for this version. It is hard to know his thoughts, even after reading his director’s statement in the program, although he does say that "I invited the actors to make it their own and in the event there were some changes – I dare say improvements – made." That sentence may hold the key to the off-balance delivery of the story.
Perhaps, again, it is true that the people affected by Jesus are the story, and he the catalyst in their lives and the lives of their descendants - real and inferred. Whatever the choices the play is still the thing and the play has resonance and strength and the hour and forty minutes of Bittleston’s version of the Gospel of John, translated from the original Greek, makes you think about the differences between mortal men of little importance and the son of God whose implied importance remains implied, even in the re-showing-and-telling of the miracles performed by him.
Benedicta Bertau and her associates have created a simple, but beautiful stage setting for the play. Costumes are simple and functional. Deena Pewtherer’s lighting is effective and moody. Locher’s stage direction is sometimes artificial with long, painterly poses, sometimes dynamic using the long table and two chairs in many ways. The rest of the evening’s triumphs and mysteries belong to the three actors.
This play runs through April 22 and justifies a trip to the bowels of Hudson. The theater is a half block away from the Hudson/Amtrak Railroad Station.
Laurie Portocarrero and Glen Williamson; photo: Iva Peele
David Anderson as Jesus; photo: Iva Peele
Portocarrera and Anderson as Mary and Jesus; photo: Iva Peele
Now in its tenth season, Walking the Dog Theater can be found in locations around Columbia County, NY. For more information contact them through their web address: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tickets for this production are $18 or $15; call 1-877-725-8849. The Gospel of John plays April 7, 15, 22 at 2pm, April 13, 14, 18, 19, 20, 21 at 8pm.
A reader's comment: "I read Peter's interesting review and enjoyed it but I think he is confusing his Johns. John the Baptist is not the author of the Gospel According to John - he is executed early in Jesus' ministry. Or am I the one who is befuddled? Is "The Gospel of John" an entirely fictional work, taking John the Baptist as its author?" from Rev'd. Canon Stephen Paul Booth, Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish, Lenox, MA.
Author's Response: I am grateful to Reverend Booth for his question. I am a theater critic and not a theologian. Jewish and not Christian, and have not read the "Gospel According to John" in many years. In the play, as presented, the first character to speak, in a lengthy monologue, is John the Baptist and with the actor playing so many other roles, including the other John presumably, it was a mistake on my part to consider this the Baptist's book. However, having done so, I think it may well be seen as a story from that particular point of view, even though he himself dies long before Jesus and might be observing the goings-on from some other plane.