Kingdom Undone at the Southern Theater

Vanessa Gamble, Janet Hanson, Dustin Bronson and Jeremiah Gamble in Kingdom Undone.

Kingdom Undone (Southern Theater, through April 8, 2012) tells the story of the passion of Christ.  Ostensibly looking to celebrate Passover, Jesus makes his entrance into a Jerusalem awash in revolutionary fervor.  Zealots appear quite willing to employ terrorism in their efforts to expel the Roman occupiers who are (understandably) nervous and quick to perceive and repress resistance.  Jesus and his jumpy followers locate a small room where they celebrate their final supper together.  Jesus prays, and agonizes, at Gethsemane.  Then Judas Iscariot, acting on his (possibly mistaken) perception that this is what Jesus wants, leads soldiers to Jesus who is, as per the gospels, arrested, tried, flogged and viciously executed.  Kingdom Undone ends with the glory of Jesus’s rising.

Playwright Jeremiah Gamble (who plays Jesus and has composed, along with his wife Vanessa Gamble, the lovely music) has created a remarkably intelligent, if  overlong, play based on this familiar material.  Gamble walks a delicate line on the question of Jesus’s divinity: his followers have no doubts – “He is the Messiah!” – but Jesus himself isn’t so sure.  Gamble deals forthrightly with the question of Jesus’s motivation: does he deliberately put himself forward as a martyr?  Is he suicidal?  Is Judas correct when he perceives that Jesus wants to be arrested?  Indeed, the rehabilitation of Iscariot’s reputation is one of the real achievements of Kingdom Undone.

Still, the essentially religious import of the play cannot be denied.  Is the gospel of Jesus a central part of your life?  If so, the play will reinforce your beliefs.  There is the caress of the familiar: Ah yes, you will say to yourself, this is the story I have come to revere.  There are some interesting twists, but nothing designed to jar me into a new understanding of Jesus’s suffering.  And if your life doesn’t revolve around the gospel of Jesus, well, you will discover nothing to inspire new belief.

But you will see a first rate production.  It is a tribute to Gamble’s prowess as a playwright that so many of the characters fascinate.  The excellent Kurt Schweickhardt thrills in his multiple roles; he’s simultaneously brittle and powerful.  Arnie Roos is both goofy and ghostly as the recently resurrected Lazarus.  Vanessa Gamble turns eroticism into spiritual fervor in her very compelling take on Mary Magdalene (though it took me a while to understand that she wouldn’t be bringing out any Spanish finger-cymbals).  As Judas, Dustin Bronson is tall, passionate and haunted; he, very admirably, drives the play.  Gamble underplays Jesus, a nice counterpoint to the passion of Jesus’s followers.  He – rarely – makes Jesus smug and smarmy, an achievement.  Everyone’s work, under the taut direction of Jeffrey S. Miller, is excellent.

Miller uses the Southern stage (the best, imo, playing space in the area) beautifully and music director Michael Pearce Donley oversees a terrific ensemble.  Costume designer Nadine Grant uses contemporary pieces – leather jackets, camouflage pants, etc – and turns them into effective biblical period pieces.  Set designer Jeremy Barnett creates lovely hangings and everything is beautifully lit by Geoff Wold.

Kingdom Undone has a top ticket price of $25 and, given the size of the production and the talent involved, it’s a bargain.  For Christians, the play is a must-see.  For non (or less fervent) believers, I’m not so sure.

It’s worth mentioning that the Gambles operate a remarkably long-lived and successful group, the Theater For The Thirsty.

For more information about John Olive, please visit his website.

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