“Where the Bible comes to life” is the slogan of Sight & Sound Theatres, headquartered in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the heart of Amish country.
Their growing repertoire of Biblical stage extravaganzas — among them Noah, Moses, Samson, Daniel, and now Queen Esther, as well as a number of productions based on the life of Jesus — emphasize spectacle and stagecraft. Live animals are obviously integral to retelling the story of creation and Noah’s ark, but my family and I have been to their production of Moses, and there were a lot of animals in that production as well.
In recent years, filmed performances of a number of their Old Testament productions have screened in theaters as special Fathom Events. This year, their production of Jesus was slated for a Fathom release, but in view of the COVID-19 pandemic that event has been postponed.
You can still see Jesus this Triduum on TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network) and on demand, April 10–12. (For more information, visit JesusEvent.com.)
The highlight of the show, filmed before a live audience at their flagship theater, is the stunning walking on water sequence, a little over an hour into the 140-minute show. It’s conflated with the stilling of the storm, so violent waves toss the boat about as Jesus approaches on the water.
The extraordinary effect relies on a range of techniques and technologies, including a rainscreen, an immense LED screen backdrop with a stormy sea, crashing waves projected in the foreground, and computer-controlled mechanical rigging that raises the boat up to eight feet off the stage and pitches it with the waves.
Following Matthew’s Gospel, Peter walks to Jesus in this sequence, sinks beneath the waves when he starts to doubt, and is dramatically raised up by Jesus and brought into the boat. That image — Jesus raising up Peter — is perhaps the master visual of the production, and the one used in the show’s branding.
Then Jesus stills the storm — and that’s when John, rather than Peter, dramatically confesses Jesus as the Son of God, a confession triumphantly echoed in song by all the Twelve.
There, in a nutshell, are both the strengths and weaknesses of the show.
Jesus offers maximal spectacle and heightened emotions in a narrative framework adapted from the Gospels in ways that range from dramatically defensible to dubious.
How important is it that the walking on water has been sundered from the feeding of the 5,000? (The two incidents are linked in all the Gospels except Luke, which omits the walking on water.) Probably not very. How big a deal is it that the confession of Jesus as the Son of God has been relocated from Capernaum to this location? Not a huge deal.
But that Peter’s confession has been given to John — that does matter, and whether it’s mere cluelessness, Evangelical bias, or a combination of both, it’s hard to say.
Strikingly, Peter is never called “Simon,” nor is “Peter” presented as a surname given to him by Jesus. There’s no talk of Jesus building his Church on Peter or giving him the keys of the kingdom, etc. (Late in the show, at the Last Supper, Jesus alludes to the meaning of Peter as “the rock.” But this has no theological value, since it’s presented as Peter’s given name, even prior to meeting Jesus.)
While this feels like anti-papal revisionism, that charge is complicated by the fact that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, likewise call themselves “the Sons of Thunder” before ever meeting Jesus — despite the fact that this, too, is a sobriquet given by Jesus in the Gospels!
This is established in a silly, raucous opening number, “The Boys of Galilee,” which follows an opening voiceover paraphrased from John 1. This opening introduces the sons of Zebedee and the sons of John (Peter and Andrew) as brawling rivals rather than partners.
There’s an almost piratical vibe as James and John lustily sing “We know how to work and we know how to fight / And if cheating means winning, who cares what’s right?”
Soon Peter, nursing a grudge against James and John for tangling his nets and stealing his favored fishing spot, picks a fight with the “Sons of Thunder,” and he and Andrew are roundly humiliated in the ensuing brawl.
Smarting as much from his empty nets as the lost fight, Peter lashes out at his wife Rachel and their young son Malachi, reflecting his feelings of inadequacy as a provider and his obsession with money. “Let us know when we matter,” Rachel flings at him — just before a bird poops on Peter’s head, to the laughter of small children in the theater audience. It’s an early low point, perhaps the worst moment in the production.
Peter proceeds to wipe the bird droppings on a man who seems to have passed out on the dock from drink — and that’s when Jesus appears. Covering the man with his coat, Jesus removes a bottle from his grasp and briefly places his arms around him, waking him up.
A puzzled Peter asks Jesus why he wants to give the drunkard his coat. “I gave him more than that,” Jesus replies enigmatically. The implication, I guess, is that Jesus’ first miracle in this telling is supernaturally sobering up a drunk man.
This is followed by Luke’s account of the miraculous catch of fish — a nicely executed effect that gives us a view under the surface with the fish circling the boat before being caught in the net — and the call of Jesus’ first disciples. Yet the themes and conflicts established in the opening are all but forgotten after this.
The production segues from a brief, strange evocation of the feeding of the 5,000 (Jesus isn’t even on hand at first, although the multiplication of the loaves and fishes is ascribed to him) to scenes from the Sermon on the Mount. As Jesus talks about the grass of the field and the birds of the air, Peter’s obsessive concern with money would be an obvious point of contrast, but those dots are left unconnected.
Jesus then launches into a partial retelling of the parable of the Prodigal Son — effectively dramatized in the telling — but there’s no concern here for the father-son conflict between Peter and his son Malachi. Peter’s and Zebedee’s wives do comment that the boys have stopped fighting, but, along with a later callback or two, that’s about the extent of the play’s interest in the themes of its own opening act.
John’s Gospel indicates that Andrew was a disciple of John the Baptist before encountering Jesus, and that he brings Peter to Jesus. That’s a nuance lost in the opening “Boys of Galilee” bravado (John the Baptist makes no appearance here).
Although the production follows an eclectic path drawing on all four Gospels, the overall feel of the production is largely Johannine.
The cleansing of the Temple comes early rather than late, reflecting the Fourth Gospel. The healing of the man born blind is cleverly sandwiched with Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, leading Nicodemus to wonder in song if he, too, is blind. During the build-up to Jesus’ trial, Nicodemus thunders, “Jesus is God!” — a moment of high theological clarity perhaps too Johannine for even for John.
Alas, the Johannine episode of the woman caught in adultery is once again interpreted as involving Mary Magdalene, who is also implicitly identified as a prostitute. (A man who appears to have been Mary’s pimp tries to collect her, sneering that Jesus can’t have changed her.)
This interpretation of Mary Magdalene, which goes back to an influential sixth-century homily by Pope St. Gregory the Great, is now generally regarded as a bad rap. (Mary Magdalene is not here identified as Mary of Bethany, who anoints Jesus’ feet and is thus implicitly identified as the sinful woman of Luke 7. A jokey line of dialogue about the confusingly large number of women named Mary in the Jesus story makes some concession to the exegetical difficulties.)
Among the Marys is, of course, the mother of Jesus, whose decent characterization seems to reflect real ecumenical concern. Notably, she isn’t accompanied by “brothers” or “sisters” of Jesus; the topic of Mary’s perpetual virginity isn’t broached one way or the other.
In one of the production’s attempts at casual humor, the wife of Zebedee presses Mary whether Jesus ever gave her any trouble as a boy, leading a smiling Mary to recount the story of the finding in the Temple.
This account (which, like other incidents, is dramatized as it’s recounted) leads the wife of Zebedee to opine loudly on what she would have done to James or John under such circumstances — but when Jesus comes up behind her during this speech, she quickly concludes that “God chose the right woman to be your mother!” (“That he did!” a laughing Jesus agrees.)
The wife of Zebedee is played by a spirited black woman whose “Big Momma” persona may play as inclusive or insensitive, perhaps partly depending on what part of the country you’re from. Her son John is a burly black man, while James, taking after his father, is white.
The disciples range from blond Andrew to dark-haired Judas — troublingly the most Jewish-looking of the Twelve, and the only one, I believe, who wears a kippah (or yarmulke). Jesus is quite Aryan-looking, with auburn hair. Clearly inclusiveness is a concern, though there’s ample room for growth here.
Perhaps the most dramatically un-Johannine episode is the agony in the Garden, which plays up the non-canonical idea of Satan tempting Jesus in his agony. Under hellish red lights, Jesus writhes as an insinuating voice suggests to him that there must be another way and that his will matters, too.
Jesus triumphs over this temptation, and what follows is a remarkably swift conflation of Jesus’ trials and crucifixion, treated as a montage scored to the mother of Jesus and John singing the well-known 1935 Albert Hay Malotte version of the Lord’s Prayer.
The Sight & Sound crew can’t resist visualizing the moment of the resurrection itself, which is projected on the side of the sepulcher. (A glowing nimbus descends on the body of Jesus and suffuses it — and Jesus sits up, to applause from the audience.)
The resurrection appearances are limited to the appearance to Mary Magdalene and the Ascension. The drama ends nine days later on the Feast of Pentecost as Peter preaches the first sermon.
Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about this Jesus is how the much of the implicit context and background to conflict in the Gospels is omitted rather than clarified.
There’s next to no treatment of Roman/Jewish conflict or of the political hopes for the Messiah and Israel’s liberation. Rome isn’t even mentioned until the triumphal entry, where Roman soldiers suddenly appear and make a remark about Pilate controlling his people.
This means that the motives of the Jewish authorities in opposing Jesus aren’t rooted in fear of a popular uprising leading to retribution from Rome against Jerusalem and the Temple. Instead, their quarrel with Jesus is all about his religious non-traditionalism.
“Go back to your boats,” a priest sneers at Peter after the cleansing of the Temple. “Religion has no place for someone like you.”
“If this is what your religion is,” Peter shoots back, “then I have no place for it.” Is this merely a critique of false religion, or does this exchange allude to the Evangelical sentiment that Christianity is “a relationship, not a religion”?
There’s very little attention to Jesus’ scandalous habit of socializing and sharing table fellowship with “sinners” (tax collectors, prostitutes, etc.). A single late incident of healing on the Sabbath is the sole reference to conflicts over the interpretation of Torah.
Even the story of the Prodigal Son is so bereft of context in conflict over Jesus’ ministry that the older brother’s reaction isn’t related at all — though the production redresses this somewhat by having Jesus come back and finish the story later.
Stagecraft remains impressive and imaginative throughout. From the docks of the lake of Galilee and the Jewish countryside to the streets of Jerusalem and the pillars of the Temple, the production is always worth looking at. Costuming, too, is a notable strength.
Bringing the Bible to life is a tall order, but Jesus at least offers an ambitious visualization of the world of the Gospels. That’s a worthwhile achievement that significantly transcends the dramatic and theological unevenness of the script.
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