A large sandbox and a rope with clothespins seem more appropriate to the set of “Leave it to Beaver” than the stage of a play about Christ. But that perception is one of many about the Messiah that this bizarre but agile production seeks to debunk.
“The Apocryphal Project,” written by Lauren Feldman DRA ’08 and Brian Hastert DRA ’09, is a bold work, an unflinching and unabashed inquiry into the story of Christ as told in a surprisingly large number of canonical and apocryphal gospels.
The three male actors flit gracefully among roles in a (non)biblical interpretation with the vitality and pace of improv. As they rush rapidly from Sunday-school-esque melodrama to orgiastic choreography, no theatrical mode overcomes their dexterity. One actor, who portrays a sweaty, bearded Virgin Mary with a small yet salient stomach, endures a pregnancy and a birth scene; a moment later, he leaps onto Joseph’s shoulders in the role of a falsetto-voiced dove, i.e., a messenger from the Lord.
Though several gospels are presented sequentially and completely, “Project” has little respect for contiguity of time or logic. In one memorable scene, the action is interrupted for an extended bacchanal, in which the actors swing haphazardly from various poles to the bouncing pulse of a Decemberists song (so frenetically that they damaged part of the set). Though we might snobbishly dismiss such moments as superfluous, they are the brilliant and apropos reaction of an irreverent, eccentric sense of humor to the bewildering medium of apocrypha.
But “Project” is hardly a series of burlesque non-sequiturs hurled erratically at its audience. Moments of confused comedy periodically crystallize into terrifying tragic climaxes. Especially in scenes taken from the Gospel of Judas, which depicts the betrayer as Christ’s most beloved apostle, the play becomes dark, bewildered, yearning. When Christ is taken from Judas to be crucified, the words “and he handed him over to them” burn on the projection screen over Judas’ head, while the show’s guitarist plays a soft acoustic ballad. Judas approaches the guitarist, grips the neck of his instrument to silence it and falls flat into the sandbox in the center of the stage. The poignancy of these few seconds epitomizes the actors’ emotional virtuosity; it is a level of pathetic power rarely achieved in professional theater.
“Project” has a distinct aesthetic — a strong, uniform visual texture. Its colors are sandy, gritty browns and flesh tones; its light, usually full and revealing, often shifts to an angular, shadowed mode, deriving a severe, ecclesiastical mood from the heavy darkness of a small stage.
Unusually, “Project” takes sides neither against God nor the Atheists; it rejects the Bible-thumping of that conflict for something more useful, more honest. Seeking neither to convince nor convert, “Project” simply presents ideas and calls those ideas into question. Its portrayal of a sexual Messiah, for example, is not a cheap stunt of incendiary black humor, but a startlingly beautiful, human addition to a dogmatized and possibly misunderstood person.
Unlike the epic, heavy depictions of Christ in painting and film (e.g. Gibson’s “Passion”), the play reveals a Messiah whose life is not etched into canonical law, but is murky and amorphous. Fundamentally a play about doubt and contradiction, “The Apocryphal Project” successfully challenges conventions both ecclesiastical and theatrical.