The "Passion Play" grew from medieval church rituals that commemorated the trial, punishment and death of Jesus. Originally proclaimed in song, much like an oratorio, the form took on dramatic dimension. The Oberammergau Passion Play, first performed in 1634 and most recently in 2010, is the most historic and best known. In the next few weeks, hundreds of churches will perform work that loosely falls under the "Passion Play" rubric.
Jeremiah and Vanessa Gamble, two talented theater artists, have constructed "Kingdom Undone," which opened Thursday night at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis. It is notable for many reasons: the continuing dramatic rehabilitation of Judas' character; the palpable presence of a Jewish resistance movement in ancient Palestine; the sense of ebullient hope that Jesus (played by Jeremiah Gamble) elicited during his ministry, and the aching devastation at his capture.
Directed by Jeffrey S. Miller, "Kingdom Undone" is a worthwhile endeavor for its artistic aspirations. The setting is earthbound -- in the best sense of grounding in a place and time. Costuming includes modern dress but the mixture only enhances a timeless story. Lovely moments -- such as a short dance between Jesus and an angel (Noni Mason), and the crucifixion tableau -- convey the best of what this production can be.
Judas, in Dustin Bronson's hands, is a perfectly pitched idealist who believes in a prevalent apocalyptic vision that Jesus' capture would unleash a legion of angels with fiery swords swooping down on the Romans. Deluded? Perhaps, but in line with the "Left Behind" eschatology. Bronson finds the good heart in a man who induces a crisis with best intentions.
Jesus is a character who has long vexed actors. Is he simply a mouthpiece for Bible verses, a wise impassive guru who confounds his enemies? Or does he speak with the fire of a rural rebel who inspired a righteous revolt? Gamble keeps a cool head, tending toward the former. The significant departure is his collapse in the Garden of Gethsemane.
"Kingdom Undone" uses some of the Passion Play pageantry but it could find more power in those conventions -- the music, for example. Michael Pearce Donley's fine ensemble largely provides incidental tunes but I kept waiting for the human voice to rise in proclamation, other than an opening and closing chorus and perhaps one other time. We need fewer scenes of disciples ambling about like Keystone Kops. The dialogue is not crisp, which makes the play overly long (nearly 2:45).
The Gambles would do well to take "Kingdom Undone" back to the shop, enhance the artistry and shake out the chaff. This has the potential to become an estimable piece in the Passion literature.
Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299