THEATER REVIEW | “Kingdom Undone” by Theater for the Thirsty: Not just for the church crowd

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Jesus.

No, I’m not swearing. Theater for the Thirsty’s production of Kingdom Undone currently running at the Southern Theater through, not coincidentally, Easter, is about Jesus. And Judas. And the other disciples. And Mary, the mother of Jesus. And Mary Magdalene. And the entry into Jerusalem during Passover (a.k.a. Palm Sunday). The Last Supper. And the crucifixion.

Let’s face it. Kingdom Undone is pretty much “critic-proof” as theater goes. When I type the word “Jesus,” that’s all most people need to read. Some folks will go to the show whether I say it’s a good piece of theater or not. Some folks will not set foot in the Southern whether I say it’s a good piece of theater or not.

So why discuss it? Because Kingdom Undone is a good piece of theater. And if there’s anyone who likes a nice knotty entanglement of theology running up against dramaturgy, and vice versa, it’s yours truly. Plus, a lot of theater came out of the church, via the Passion Plays and liturgical performance, so it’s not that big a stretch to put a little church back in theater every now and again.

“What? Is it our job to save the whole world?”
“Maybe. Maybe it is.”

One of the most admirable things about Kingdom Undone is that it doesn’t settle for just being a pat Sunday School lesson. The characters populating Kingdom Undone for the most part are straight out of the Bible, but they’re human beings, not saints (and yes, that goes for Jesus, too). Kingdom Undone isn’t trying to be subversive with this strategy, though. By grounding the tale in its human reality (but still not denying its divine aspects), it hopes to make the characters in these tales more recognizable and thus the story more relatable, not something distant from the audience and their experience. On this count, Kingdom Undone largely succeeds.

“One of you will betray me. One of you will deny me. Many of you will desert me.”

Kingdom Undone succeeds because this large-scale production is made up of a number of finely tuned working parts. There’s a 16-person ensemble directed by Jeffery S. Miller, a four-piece live band led by Michael Pearce Donley, a smart script by Jeremiah Gamble, and evocative music by Jeremiah and his wife (and co-artistic director of Theater for the Thirsty) Vanessa Gamble, which provides an ongoing soundtrack to the action. Jeremy Barnett’s agile set relies on shifting collections of hanging fabric and nimble platforms and steps that wheel around all over the playing space. Nadine Grant’s costumes look genuinely lived in rather than simply designed. Geoff Wold’s lights transform the stage countless times. You sense this is a labor of love by artists who really know what they’re doing. It’s a solid presentation of tricky subject matter.

“Blessed is he who comes to wage a holy war.”

Because Kingdom Undone isn’t just trying to present a portrait of the human side of Jesus. It’s also trying to humanize Judas, the disciple who betrayed Jesus to the authorities who sought his death. In writer Jeremiah Gamble’s version of the tale, Judas wasn’t some disillusioned former true believer or someone who could be bought off for the right amount of money. This Judas (Dustin Bronson) is smart enough to see what he thinks is Jesus’s master plan and does all he can to bring it to fruition. That plan involves getting Jesus (writer Gamble again) arrested.

“I do have a conscience. My job would be easier if I didn’t.”

The festival of Passover celebrates the freeing of the ancient Israelites from their slavery in Egypt. The Jews of Jesus’s day were suffering under the yoke of a different oppressor, the Roman Empire. As the festival of Passover approached, Jesus and his growing group of followers weren’t just making the Romans nervous, however. The philosophy Jesus was preaching also ran counter to the hierarchy of the powers that be in organized religion. The church leaders were looking for a way to discredit the rebel Jesus, or get rid of him altogether. And they weren’t above conspiring with the Romans to get the job done.

“You have been warned.”
“And you have been invited.”

Jesus, of course, sees the much bigger picture and knows he must be a human sacrifice. Judas thinks the arrest will get Jesus in the perfect position to take out all the authorities at once. Judas expects the lid to get ripped off their non-violent revolution, and that the army of heaven’s angels will step into the affairs of humans and set everything right. The tension between what Jesus knows and what Judas believes is what drives the play, and it’s a powerful engine that keeps things moving inexorably toward the crucifixion. Even if you don’t already know the broader outlines of the story, it still works as compelling viewing.

“Turn the other cheek.”
“I’m running out of cheeks.”

Judas is front and center in this narrative and Bronson shoulders the load admirably. His faith is unshakable right up until the end. When confronted with the realization that this game isn’t going to play out the way he expected it to, Bronson’s crumbling Judas is heartbreaking to watch. Gamble gets nearly as much stage time so Jesus is no second banana, but the text is clearly using the new improved Judas as the audience’s window into the story.

“You want someone to pay. And someone will pay. But not like you think.”

Gamble’s Jesus, on the page and in performance, is a well-calibrated balance of the human and the divine. He is a charismatic presence, full of good will for his followers and his detractors alike. It pains him just as much when his enemies stumble as when his friends do. The challenge of being a man who knows too much, and who can’t share that full knowledge with those closest to him, is something that weighs heavily on this leader of men. This is where the audience seeing both sides of the story and having full knowledge of the forces on a collision course really ramps up the suspense. On the divine side of things, there is a sequence of Jesus healing the sick, lame and blind that’s doubly impressive because of the simplicity of its staging. Though it’s a human action, the scene where Jesus throws the moneychangers out of the temple is economically done, yet also has its moment of spectacle when Jesus rips down three enormous red banners hanging down from the imposing Southern Theater proscenium arch. The crucifixion, too, is inventively staged. I have to be honest, I was dreading it. But the staging is suggestive rather than literal. There is pain, but no blood, and the representation of the crosses is simple but powerful.

“Could you stand back? The plank in your eye is hitting me in the head.”

There’s a lot of welcome humor here, much of it from character rather than just religious inside jokes—though there were a number of those as well. Different audiences will engage the story and the humor at different levels. The constant thread of music, both background music and full-fledged song, helps make the mood and emotion of the scenes more rich.

“We’ve dealt with their Messiahs before.”

The puzzling things about Kingdom Undone are the things that it adds and the things it chooses to leave out. Any adaptation requires decisions to streamline the original story into stageable form, but in some cases, the decisions made on Kingdom Undone don’t present the original story’s strongest material. This is where the boy who became a playwright, raised by two ordained ministers as his parents, geeks out on theology combined with dramaturgy, so feel free to just go get your tickets if what I said above is enough. Kingdom Undone is well worth seeing, despite the quibbles that follow.

“If there is a God, he has failed me. He has failed both of us.”

For instance, on the addition side, there is an entire subplot running through the evening that involves a group calling themselves the Zealots who are staging their own violent revolution, killing every Roman who gets in their way. While the Zealots provide a contrast to Jesus’s non-violent revolution, their story just peters out at the end rather than resolving. They are involved with Barabbas (who was freed and spared crucifixion instead of Jesus) but we never meet Barabbas. Judas’ ill-fated cousin Isaac (Matthew Berdahl) is working with the Zealots, but again this subplot never really leads anywhere. It does help show the magnitude of Isaac’s journey from non-believer to believer, but I’d argue that Isaac’s grievances against the Romans are enough of a barrier for him joining Jesus’ disciples as anything the Zealots cause him to do. Berdahl goes a great job with an angry, wounded character, eliciting a lot of sympathy, especially as he follows Jesus on his final journey to the cross, but the script could trust him to do more with less, leaving the Zealots out of it, and we wouldn’t know the difference.

“God doesn’t speak to me, so I guess I’m on my own.”

There is also an addition to the Garden of Gethsemane. An angel (Noni Mason) comes to Jesus and does some interpretive dance that’s designed to bolster his flagging spirits and literally lift him up onto his feet again. It’s not that it wasn’t interesting to watch. But as the friend who attended with me pointed out, the thrust of the story at Gethsemane is more about Jesus being alone. He calls out to God, his father, but receives no reply. And when he leaves his disciples alone to stand guard while he prays, they keep falling asleep on him. He comes back not one, not two, but three times (three being a key number in the scriptures in general, and in this story in particular) and finds his followers have nodded off. He scolds them for not remaining alert and praying as well. They try to support him but they can’t. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. The words he says to them in this situation are his last words to them before he is arrested and taken off to be crucified. The isolation of Jesus, and his fraying relationship with his disciples, are lost in this presentation.

“I wish I had your faith, but I’ve seen too much.”
“I’ve seen too much not to have faith.”

The things left out are more puzzling. We only get half of the Last Supper. The bread symbolizing Jesus’s body, about to be broken on the cross as a sacrifice, is addressed. But the wine, which is supposed to be his blood, gets skipped over so we can move to a musical number and get Jesus off to Gethsemane. The Last Supper is filled to bursting with symbolism and significance, not just for this story, but as the basis for the ritual of Communion observed in many modern denominations. Its truncation here seems strange.

“I would rather see a mountain of dead Romans than one resurrected Jew.”

The crucifixion is trickier because each of the four gospels is a little different, plus there’s the inevitable mythology that each denomination builds up around their own particular way of observing it. I’m not saying I need an actual crown of thorns, but one of the key charges against Jesus was that he was claiming to be the Son of God, the Messiah, the King of the Jews. The crown of thorns and a sign nailed to his cross were meant to mock that.

Jesus cries out on the cross that he is thirsty. But other than mother Mary crying out in sympathy to get her son something to drink, there’s no follow-through in this production. How the guards respond in a couple of the gospels is mean-spirited. They moisten a sponge and raise it up to him on a stick. But it’s something bitter like vinegar, not water. In one gospel, the guards also gamble to see who gets Jesus’s clothes.

“It is finished.” The darkness in the middle of the day. The earthquake. The rending of the veil of the temple from top to bottom at the time of his death. I could rattle on about the crucifixion for a while. Which of course makes me realize how hard any and all of the decisions of what to include and what to leave out must have been for Theater For the Thirsty. 

“He’s good.”
“He’s kind.”
“Is that all? Because that’s not enough.”

The biggest headscratcher here, though, is the absence of the resurrection. It’s like having a story with a beginning and middle but no end. The point isn’t just that Jesus was crucified, as a sacrifice to end all sacrifices. The point is that he came back. He conquered death. So that his followers would also be able to conquer death and have an eternal life beyond this one in heaven. Plus at the Second Coming, everyone literally gets raised from the dead, but that’s a whole other tangent. Now, the other characters do make reference to the fact that they’ve seen Jesus, but why doesn’t the audience get to see Jesus?

There have been some “behind the scenes” aspects to this telling of the story previously (Jesus is just offstage giving the Sermon on the Mount while his disciples do a little comedy routine for us onstage; Lazarus already raised from the dead teases Jesus that he was beginning to wonder if he’d have to die again just to get Jesus to come visit him; the crowd greeting Jesus just offstage on his entrance into Jerusalem rather than seeing Jesus himself ride in on a donkey). But for the most part, we get to see things play out in front of us—the healing of the sick, the ransacking of the temple, the restoration of the guard’s ear at Gethsemane, the Last Supper, the crucifixion. Now, suddenly, the most important part of the story and we’re supposed to just take their word for it? Without seeing the resurrected Jesus, after we’ve seen so much else, you can’t help wondering if Mary Magdalene and the disciplines might not be making it up just to make themselves feel better. Or maybe grief has made them crazy.

“Lord, what do you need?”
“For my father to change his mind.”

And as my friend who saw the show with me pointed out, this approach also deprives us of Jesus the prankster. At first when Mary Magdalene sees Jesus in the garden where the empty tomb is, she thinks he’s the gardener. But then he says her name and she recognizes him. Over and above the playfulness gained in such a scene after the grimness of the crucifixion, there’s also a much greater emotional impact to be mined here. Given Vanessa Gamble’s performance as Mary—and what an earthy, reverent, forgiving presence she is in the story—I can only imagine how wonderful it would have been to see her joy at seeing Jesus again after she thought she’d lost him forever.

“If you touch him, these people will tear you apart.”

The story of Jesus meeting another believer on the road is also used, but not staged here. Jesus appears at first to be a stranger to his former follower, until he lifts the veil of secrecy from his eyes and is known to him. Also, I know it’s just in the gospel of John, but the whole story of Doubting Thomas is something that, as a concept, has permeated the culture beyond the Bible: someone who must see in order to believe. When Jesus appears to the disciples as a group, he allows Thomas to touch his wounds, so Thomas will believe he is real. It’s a key lesson in faith: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

“God is not your father.”
“How I wish He were yours.”

I can understand the reluctance to actually be the resurrected Jesus onstage for any actor. But it’s a tall order to just be Jesus, period. The hard part of taking on the mantle is already done, and Gamble does an impressive, nuanced job in the role. The resurrection is the grand slam, the money shot. Showing us these things as they happened isn’t going to make the evening appreciably longer. There’s a lot of running off and back on and telling stories anyway that could be replaced with the real thing. Take out some extraneous subplots like the Zealots or the angel dance and you’ve got still more breathing room in the story. You’re denying your audience catharsis. Plus, no disrespect to the other actors and their characters, but Jesus and Judas have been so central to the story that when they leave the canvas, the air goes out of the production. We need resolution, and we need to see Jesus to get it.

“It’s easy to die for something. Living, that takes courage.”

And while we’re at it, why not give Judas a little resolution? In this telling of the story especially, Jesus knows that Judas is doing what needs to be done. He also realizes that Judas truly believes it’s a good thing and not a betrayal. Since the most common version of Judas’s death is that he hung himself (and how do you pass up both your lead characters dying while hanging on a tree? c’mon), my friend wanted the resurrected Jesus to come and cut poor Judas down from the rope, releasing his spirit. They wouldn’t even need to talk. The visual alone would do the work. And with Judas so key to the whole story in this production, it seems a shame his story doesn’t get tied off more neatly (no pun intended).

“You want a miracle? Get in line!”

All this aside though, it’s a rare show that a friend and I will be discussing for hours after we’ve seen it. There’s a lot that Kingdom Undone does extremely well. The church crowd will love it, but I’d argue it’s not just for the church crowd. It’s a good story, well told. Highly recommended.


Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Collaborative.

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