CIRCLE OF SPIRIT The Godspell cast. Photo by R MORIN
Charisma, daring, showmanship, whimsy — these are just a few of the character qualities expected under any given Big Top. But they might be just as at home in the discovery and passing on of religious ideas, as a teacher delivers and seekers explore the possible tenets of spirituality. We meet these dynamic traits in this summer's Godspell, the classic '70s ensemble treatment of the Gospel of Matthew, which director Chris Saunders sets within a "metaphysical circus," in a vivacious production of the Arundel Barn Playhouse.
This spectacle is put up in the literal barn of the Playhouse, with its high wooden rafters and spacious tent-revival feel; the plainness of the venue makes a stirring setting for the simple antics of this Godspell. From a yellow star near the top of the proscenium, red fabric cascades through colored pennants; the players underneath it wear sequins and rainbows, clown pants and sparkly tube tops.
Jesus himself (Darren Bluestone) wears tight-fitting white, including a T-shirt adorned with a faded pink heart. These duds lend Bluestone, who is tall, lean, and fair, a tinge of punk-rock stardom, albeit a vanilla one. His Jesus has the easy magnetism and hip Socratic charm of many great cult leaders, and Bluestone is equally deft at rendering him dumbstruck with sadness or frustration at the ways of man. As his eventual betrayer, Judas, John Rozzoni makes a great foil to him in garb, physique, and general ethos. In motorcycle black, a red satin vest, and gold epaulets, the swarthier, more rugged Rozzoni often seems almost to vibrate with a suppressed energy at odds with the bright naïveté of his fellow disciples.
In terms of form and style, Godspell relates their searching via a scrumptious assortment of flavors, slapstick routines, puppet shows, and hand jive; ballads, soul, and music-hall numbers. Saunders's blocking and choreography keeps all this snappy and kinetically interesting (with some particularly fun physical work by Ryan Heidenreich), often accompanied by slide whistles or boing-y noises by the fine four-piece band. This production also slips in a few cultural updates to the '70s, including Sesame Street's Elmo, and even a brief moon-walked tribute to a certain recently deceased seeker-performer.
What these young disciples perform is of an exploratory, experimental nature. Jesus entreats them, "Be careful not to make a show of your religion before man," and they don't — theirs is more of a "Let's put on a show!" sort of impulse; they put it on not for the non-believers, but for each other and themselves. At the same time, the circus motif limits our view of what lies beneath the spangles and theatricality — the bare human stuff of need, wounds, and loneliness. While a few moments do reveal that hurt and yearning — notably Monica Willey's beautiful sadness as she begins the song "Day by Day," and another number in which players remove pieces of their costumes and leave them with Jesus — I found myself wishing for more cracks in the Big Top conceit, for a few more glimpses of the aching, hoping humans within the sequins.
But that said, this production is unquestionably affecting, in the true spirit of the play — even for a viewer with little personal frame of reference for the specific gospel at hand. That is to say that it hits the universal notes. Its success lies in how well it conveys a genuine warmth between the members of its quirky little community. When in "On the Willows," shortly before his death, Jesus embraces each disciple in goodbye, the tenderness in gazes and gestures is palpable, and all the loft of the spirit is stripped to the simplest acts of all.
Megan Grumbling can be reached at email@example.com.
Godspell |conceived by John-Michael Tebelak | music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz | Directed by Chris Saunders | Musical Direction by Joshua Smith | Produced by the Arundel Barn Playhouse | through July 11 | 207.985.5552