After marveling at Ken Jennings’ power of memorization, one has to also admire his ability to deliver the entire text of The Gospel of John with unwavering clarity and devotion to its meaning both as literature and as a Christian lodestone.
An agile actor (and singer), Jennings (the original Tobias in Sweeney Todd), deftly tells the story of Jesus as seen through the eyes of John the Baptist. The actor roams about a simple raised platform in front of a rough-hewn back curtain made of wrinkled tan cloth. What looks like a handmade bench—a subtle reference to Jesus’ vocation?—completes the set.
The streamlined production is designed by Charlie Corcoran and the workaday, everyman costume by Tracy Christensen. John Pietrowski’s direction is of a piece with the transparency of the text and the design team.
A modern incarnation of the ritual of sharing ancient tales around a communal fire, Jennings’ reciting of the Gospel has a disingenuous off-the-cuff feel. He even begins the performance in a down-to-earth mode, casually pointing out the emergency exits and humorously exhorting us to silence our cell phones.
The quotation-rich Gospel of John is a good choice for dramatization. Easygoing Jennings takes full advantage of its colorful locations and characters. Water is turned to wine. Tiny amounts of bread and fish become scads of loaves and multitudes of fishes. Samaritans kvetch. Pharisees pollute the Temple. The disciples fight, gossip and betray each other and Jesus.
Setting aside, if we can, the religious/spiritual/mythical aspects of the Gospel, it describes, from a 21st century point of view, a Jesus who was an approachable narcissist rambling about Palestine and its environs showing off his God-given powers. He made no bones about the fact that he was the Son of God and that his wishes had to be obeyed. The text paints a picture of a man who planned his “tricks”—those loaves and fishes, raising Lazarus from the dead and making a blind man see again, etc.—merely as public relations aids for his quest to spread God’s word.
From the opening—“In the beginning was the word”—to the heartrending ending—“For God so loved the world he gave his only Son that whoever believes in the Son should not perish but should have eternal life”—Jennings interpretation skillfully walks a fine line between simple storytelling and preaching “the Word.” So talented and seemingly artless is Jennings that audience members of any persuasion—religious or secular—will find what they seek in this theater piece be it strengthening of their beliefs or sitting through a fascinatingly told story.
The last time that this kind of thing was tried, Alec McCowen’s 1977 Gospel of Saint Mark, was a much more formal dramatization by that skilled British actor.
The Gospel of John (extended through January 5, 2020)
The Sheen Center Black Box Theater, 18 Bleecker Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-925-2812 or visit http://www.SheenCenter.org
Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission