Godspell at Paper Wing

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By Philip Pearce

PAPER WING THEATRE’S new revival of Godspell has the spontaneous improv atmosphere of a piece that started life as a drama class project at Carnegie Mellon University before it morphed into a Broadway hit.

This was way back in an age of hippie communes, ashrams and the Jesus People, so John-Michael Tebelak’s words and Stephen Schwartz’s music configured Jesus as a loveable Aquarian peacenik. At Paper Wing, Director/Choreographer Kate Bradley Faber and principal actor/singer Jason Stout fall right into line with that amiable concept. Stout smiles a lot, sings pleasantly and playfully transforms a troupe of followers from a nice but disorganized rabble into a unified support team.

There are twelve of them, labeled “Disciples” in the program, but they don’t portray the apostolic dozen listed in Matthew’s Gospel. They play themselves and use their own names which, for the record, are Leia Dilley, Katie Day, Tiffany Jones, David Boehme, Xun Zhang, Alyssa D’Alessandro, Seaneen Scott Sullinger, Taylor Landess, Jay DeVine, Kelly Machado, Steven Howard and Felicia Afifi. Their job, like a good class of trainee actors, is to interpret the Master’s preaching and story-telling in Act 1 and enact his betrayal and crucifixion in Act 2. They do a great job, belting out their songs with a lot of chutzpa and offering lively and broadly comic takes on a succession of parables and sermons.

I was particularly taken with the way the show used audience participation. Spectators were nudged out of their seats to conduct on-stage games of charades and Pictionary based on pieces of scripture. A young man moved from the row in front of me to do an impressive unrehearsed job as the beggar hero in the parable of Dives and Lazarus.

The show is a lot of fun to watch, in spite of getting off to a rocky start. Paper Wing has elected to include a Prologue that is in the original script but is sometimes omitted in amateur productions. Cast members, taking on the personas and opinions of famous philosophers from Socrates to L. Ron Hubbard, step forward and pitch their respective ideologies, lucidly at first, but ultimately in a cacophony of ugly babble. Then the Baptist breaks through their noisy confusion with the clear and stirring “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” It’s an exciting idea, but the company and director, so on target for much of the evening, fail to meet the challenge. The philosophers’ complicated speeches are not projected well enough to be understood and their name tag necklaces would need to be twice as big to be read beyond the first row.

Informal comedy sequences are done with skill and wit. The more serious sections are less effective. The mass baptism, performed by Nicholas Kelley as an incisive baritone John the Baptist, is a jolly and joyous enough first act event. But the second act Eucharist, which should be a touching prologue to the Crucifixion, has Jesus and the disciples in a tight and awkward huddle struggling with some metal cups and an unwieldy pair of wine bottles.

There are glitches, but the company have a cohesion and a delight in what they are doing that makes this well worth a visit.

Dear Liar

By Philip Pearce

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW had passionate platonic love affairs with several of the leading ladies who acted in his plays. Platonic enough that he could claim these theatrical amours provided his wife Charlotte with regular amusement. And passionate enough to spark a lot of steamy and witty romance, if only in the letters the doughty Irishman exchanged with the actresses he swore he loved.

None of these relationships was as long-lived or heartfelt as the correspondence that began when Shaw was trying to persuade London stage superstar Mrs Patrick Campbell to take on the role of the teen-aged cockney flower girl in the premier production of Pygmalion. Their epistolary skirmishing didn’t end when, aged 49, the lady triumphed as Eliza in 1914. Their letters continued, fast and furious, through World War I right up to the lead-in to World War II.

Jerome Kilty has mined this collection in an insightful comedy of letters called Dear Liar. Suzanne Sturn and Robert Colter (pictured below) are giving it a stylish and beguiling reading under the Listening Place Readers Theater aegis at the Monterey Museum of Art.

Sturn directs the piece with a keen eye to movement and variety in a format that can’t be allowed to settle into actors turning pages behind music stands. For starters, she and Colter use tall bar stools that allow them to sit down from time to time without disappearing behind the head of the patron seated in front of you at the museum.Dear Liar

The couple move, react and link artfully. My Fair Lady fans (and who isn’t?) were delighted with the rendition of some early Pygmalion rehearsals. We followed Eliza’s first meeting with Higgins (“Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf…”) under the portico of St Paul’s Covent Garden. Then, in a hilarious bit of tomfoolery, Sturn and Colter did the famous tea party scene with a flawlessly posh Eliza describing the theft of a hat and her family’s addiction to gin. As Sturn’s Eliza natters on, Colter dashes back and forth across the playing area, shifting between the roles of Freddy, Mrs. Eynsford-Hill and Mrs Higgins without missing a beat.

Colter offers a funny but never caricatured Shaw, capable of the high-jinks that motivated Mrs PC to dub him Joey the Clown, but also offering a terrifying barrage of rage in his angry pacifist outburst against a First World War he regarded as a bloodthirsty and hypocritical catastrophe.

Sturn is a blissful Mrs Pat, full of coy teasing as she plays her besotted letter-writing partner like a deft histrionic angler landing a prize fish. Both characters have their moments of wounded personal tragedy, but hers are deeper than Shaw’s. The power of Sturn’s characterization lies in the way she shifts, year by year, from the haughty and frolicsome tactics of an early 20th century diva to the pathetic struggles of an aging has-been trying to revive her glory days.  Short of cash and trapped in small parts by a Hollywood she hates, she wheedles her old admirer without success to slip her into a walk-on in one of his later plays.

Dear Liar, the lady’s shrewd assessment of a man who values dramatic effect more than literal truth, is a bright, slickly performed event. There’s just one more performance, 1:30 Sunday at the Monterey Art Museum. I recommend it heartily.