by SOPHIE KERMAN
It’s hard to stage a play based on a story the entire audience already knows; when the story is about Jesus, this is doubly true. Very few people have neutral reactions to the story of the crucifixion, but – whether positive or negative – each person’s associations to it are highly individual. While believers may be deeply moved by the spiritual messages behind Jesus’s sacrifice and resurrection, skeptics will likely look for other points of interest in the human connections between Jesus and his disciples. Jeremiah and Vanessa Gamble, the co-creators of Kingdom Undone, are profoundly aware of these different perspectives. By staging Jesus’s life largely through the eyes of Judas, the Gambles hope to “invite both sides to the table” for a dialogue about both Jesus’s divinity and his humanity.
Of course, as a secular audience member, you have to be willing to engage with devout Christianity in order to even walk through the door. If future audiences continue to resemble those of opening night, non-Christians may be either impressed or mildly alienated by the warm feelings circulating among the rest of the crowd, where everyone seems to know each other.
But while there are aspects of the audience experience that feel a bit like a mega-church, the play is not at all off-putting from a dramatic perspective. Though the plot lags a bit (since we know exactly what’s coming), the characters are distinct, well thought out and well acted. The Gambles have interpreted Judas as acting under fervent conviction rather than simple treachery, and Dustin Bronson performs the role with the ardor of a smart and idealistic man who doesn’t often get things wrong. Jesus’s disciples are wholly human and surprisingly funny, with Nathan Cousins playing Peter as a complete know-it-all and Christian DeMarais‘s James making the disciples seem like pledges to a new fraternity. (Arnie Ross‘s Lazarus also provides some excellent comic relief.) As Christ himself, Jeremiah Gamble resists falling into stereotype and delivers more attitude than one might expect from Jesus.
Another credit to this production is its resistance to the traditional under-representation of women in the Jesus story. Magdalena, Mary, and Joanna (Gail Ottmar) have nearly as much stage time as the male characters, and although they don’t exactly challenge any gender roles, they are treated as equals by the male disciples. And while Magdalena (Vanessa Gamble) is more notable for her powerful singing ability than her richness as a character, Janet Hanson is remarkable as Mary. With a typical mother’s concerns and the impulse to adopt all of Jesus’s friends as if they were her own children, Mary is entirely recognizable, and her grief at the crucifixion is all the more heartbreaking when she so closely resembles our own mothers.
For all of the success of the individual characters, there were times that the play as a whole didn’t click with me. Part of this has to do with the use of the space at the Southern Theater. Set designer Jeremy Barnett‘s does a good job of filling the Southern’s cavernous space with cushions and hanging drapery, making its crumbling proscenium arch seem like an organic part of the Middle Eastern world. And lighting designer Geoff Wold has cleverly brought the set closer to the audience with a constellation of small colored lanterns. The actors just seem far away, though, and some clunky bits of blocking and slow scene transitions get in the way of the play’s pacing and flow. The musical moments, too, are performed excellently by both the cast and four live musicians, but the songs feel like breaks in the action, rather than moving the plot along. Although the play is not directed by the Gambles, the couple collectively wrote, produced, and play principal roles in the show; one gets the sense that the play could have benefited from an editor with some emotional distance – a role which director Jeffrey S. Miller may not have been comfortable or able to play.
In the end, though, some of my reservations about the play may stem from my own non-Christianity, rather than from any particular production flaws. I came into the theater on guard against any messages of conversion, and, thankfully, the play largely resists simple interpretations or general preachiness. My discomfort came, really, from paying attention to the audience: moments like the strong and sincere laugh of recognition when Peter ruefully asks, “Is it our job to save the world?” or the copious tears I could hear during the crucifixion scene. Though certainly out of my element, I ultimately found this discomfort to be productive; the moments where I felt most alienated from the sentiments around me were also the moments where it became clear to me, in a new and visceral way, that there are political and emotional ties to Christianity that I will never have access to. While I left the theater unmoved on a spiritual level, the experience was intellectually challenging and enlightening. (I suspect that Christian viewers might experience the play in the opposite way, as spiritually moving but uncontroversial.) It may be unavoidable that we all interpret Jesus’s life differently, but for those open to thinking about Christian faith, Kingdom Undone provides an interesting venue for thinking in new ways about a very old story.
Kingdom Undone by Vanessa and Jeremiah Gamble. March 22nd – April 8th, The Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Ave. S, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $21-$25, Discounts for groups, seniors, students and fringe buttons — go to to www.kingdomundone.com or 800.838.3006.