'Gospel of John' Brings New Testament to Life
By Dolores Whiskeyman
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 12, 2002; Page C01
In the beginning was the Word, and it was action-packed.
Forget your Sunday-school Jesus and his 12 dainty disciples. "The
Gospel of John," at the H Street Playhouse, is a sweaty, gritty
tale of a miracle-working idealist who runs afoul of the law.
Passion, longing, envy, greed, ambition, intrigue and betrayal
-- it's all here, and it is riveting.
Director Scott Cowart and actor Brad Sherrill reimagine the
fourth gospel as a one-man play in which a storyteller -- John
-- relates the adventures of Jesus to a crowd of unbelievers --
the audience. In telling the story, John inhabits dozens of other
characters, from the skeptical Samaritan woman at the well to
the genial carpenter from Nazareth.
Jesus's humble origins elicit snickers from one of his first
disciples: "Nazareth!" snorts the clueless Nathanael. "Can anything
good come from there?" Quite a bit, as it turns out. Sherrill's
Jesus is an affable, plain-spoken fellow whose message of tolerance
and hope is as much political as spiritual. But the affection
he generates among his followers displeases the authorities. They
find the man's growing popularity a threat to their own power.
In staging the play, Cowart relies on a few simple elements
-- a sturdy table, a chair, a stool, a ceramic basin, an oil lamp,
a bucket filled with rocks -- to create the shifting environments
in which the stories take place.
The table, upended, becomes the door to Lazarus's tomb; the lamp,
sitting on a low stool, is a fire where Jesus warms his hands.
As a disdainful Pharisee, Sherrill sits behind the table with
his hands folded and his lip curled into a bureaucrat's sneer.
As a Roman soldier, he kneels atop the table and pounds a rock
for each nail in the cross.
Sherrill and Cowart have toured the show in about 10 states.
With the exception of one adjustment, the text is the complete,
unedited fourth gospel (New International Version). The exception,
according to Cowart, is this: After a number of performances,
Sherrill decided to substitute "authorities" for "Jews" because
the latter term appears so much in the original text that the
play began to sound anti-Semitic.
A little judicious editing might have helped; the first act,
which covers Chapters 1 to 11, drags a bit. But Act 2, which covers
the events leading up to the crucifixion, plays as a heart-pounding
tale of suspense.
The effect of all of this is to bring the story home for me
in ways no Sunday morning homily ever did. It's not just the beautiful
simplicity of Cowart's direction or the intensity of Sherrill's
performance that does it; it's also the simple stroke of genius
in performing the entire gospel, unadapted, as drama.
Suddenly you understand: It always was a drama. Seeing it presented
that way, you begin to appreciate its power.
The Gospel of John, directed by Scott Cowart. Sound,
Mark Hickman; lights, Darryl Moran and Jeremy Skidmore. Approximately
2 hours 20 minutes. Presented by the Theatre Alliance. Through
Nov. 24 at H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 202-396-2125.