The Bible may be the oldest book in the world, but it’s a change of pace for the Off-Broadway theatre.

Written and directed by Michael Lew ’03, “Three Men of Golgotha” examines the life of Jesus through the accounts offered by the four Gospels. In eleven vignettes that vary widely by tone and perspective, the show explores a familiar story through its “bit players” — among them kings and pig herds.

A prelude exploring the variation among the four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — opens the show. As the four apostles, Ja-Shukry Shia ’03, Chiansan Ma ’02, Cameron Abadi ’04 and Bikram Chatterji ’03 have an energetic debate about the details of Jesus’ life, highlighting discrepancies in fact and focus amongst the Gospels. This skit perfectly frames the show by creating room for the deviations from orthodoxy that it subsequently explores.

The scenes that follow range from the comic to the agonized. Ma, Abadi, and Chatterji bring the three stooges back to the first millennium as the three kings who travel to give gifts to the Christ child. They’ve got the tireless energy of sugared-up kids strapped into the back of a station wagon and they use it to great effect.

As John the Baptist, jailed and awaiting his death sentence, Shia turns creates a powerful impresion, perfectly captured by his own lighting design — exceptional here and throughout the show. His John is both faithful to the end even as he suffers from a crisis of belief.

“How will I know if all of this praying and believing was done for the right man?” he asks himself. It’s a theme that echoes throughout the show — how can the people in Jesus’ life sacrifice so much for the life of one man?

Lew refuses to provide an easy answer to this question, instead making an emphatic choice to keep Jesus (Kevin Wicks ’03) off the stage. Wicks appears onstage only twice, both times in the second act — first in a silent confrontation his royal oppressor, Herod (Shia again), and then in the final climactic scene. For a man whose words are constantly being cited and disputed by other characters, he says remarkably little.

It’s clear that Lew has intentionally focused the audience’s attention away from the Messiah himself, instead focusing on his context. Yet in that case one wonders why he weakened the effect by including the rather disposable scene with Herod.

In contrast with the rest of the show — which peeks at the story from every angle — Wicks’ portrayal is remarkably consistent. In this show, Jesus is strictly an ascetic. Significantly, Lew omits only one essential episode from the life of Christ — the agony in the garden, in which Christ suffers from a monumental crisis of confidence. Perhaps portraying Jesus’ comlexity simply wasn’t Lew’s point — but it remains a strange asymmetry.

The show benefits tremendously from the versatility of its small cast of five. Their transitions from the schticky, easy laughs to earnest agony are what makes the show plausible and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, their talents are not quite enough to keep the second act going. As the story slowly builds to its climax — the crucifixion — the show’s energy wanes, and its lively pace devolves into a series of uneven, often repetitive monologues. The apostle Peter, the traitorous apostle Judas, the thief Barabbas and Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, each take a turn to ponder Christ’s life, but bring to bear little new insight. It’s not surprising that Joseph is hurt by Jesus’ announcement that “If any man comes to me and does not hate his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes and his very life, he can be no disciple of mine.”

By the time the show finally arrives at the crucifixion — ostensibly its focus — the tension of the first act has somewhat played out. Despite the drama of the Golgotha set — which is built onstage throughout the second act — and fine performances by Wicks, Abadi and Shia, the length of the act weakens its conclusion.

The show gains strength from its helter-skelter breadth of setting and characters, but it requires of its audience some prior knowledge of the Gospels. Overall, “Three Men of Golgotha” has some insights and offers huge scope for the talents of its cast, but its strength is blunted by its excesses.

Three Men of Golgotha

Fri: 7:30 and 10 p.m. Sat: 2 and 7:30 p.m.

Off-Broadway Theater, $2