As I settled into a seat at the very center of the bleacher-style audience that has been built on top of the pews of the St Jax church, I observe the space in front of me. The room is thick with the smell of incense, and like the audience, the stage has also been installed over-top of a group of pews in the center of the church, rather than at the altar. A man approaches me suddenly and says “I think the best view is from either side of the audience, rather than from the very center.” I smile, thank him, and begin to move my things to what is supposed to be a better seat. Before I do, I ask him if he has seen this show before. He smirks and replies, “I was here this afternoon.” And boy, after seeing this show once I sure wish I was in that man’s shoes, so that I could go see it again in a few hours. And maybe also again after that!
Opening in a marketplace in Bethany, we follow a charismatic young Jesus, played by Ishan Davé, who is quickly discovered to have performed a miracle: curing a young girl of her chronic illness. We see him rapidly rise to fame as he ascends the hierarchy of public opinion. Going from a street merchant who sells boxes, joined on either side by his practical disciples Mary and Simon, and seeking to engage as little as possible with the corrupt monetary system in place, to becoming a recognized spiritual teacher, who teaches in the temple and regularly receives grant money from “the empire” to do “whatever” with. Everyone would like to say they knew Jesus before he was famous, but those who really knew him watch in disappointment as the meaning of their original cause is distorted and manipulated to fit the goals of the system that sustains it.
Evan Webber and Frank Cox-O’Connell, who met while studying at the National Theatre School make up the bones of EW & FCO, the company that brings us the delightfully philosophical Other Jesus. Inspired by many elements of the New Testament and reinterpreted to explore concepts of communism, systemic corruption, capitalism, and fame as they mean to us today. “Writing this story about Christianity was a way of thinking about a Jewish Identity. [It is] also a way to think about a communist identity,” Webber says about his process. And it is very quickly understood that Christianity is definitely not the main focus here, but rather, how we can stay human with each other in a world of hyper-sensationalism.
Ingrained in the piece is music and soundscape, which is, according to Cox-O’Connell, mostly improvised. As well as highly stylized and precise movement choreography from the performers as they go through the piece, stiffening and dehumanizing them, further mythologizing a story that has been reimagined with contemporary themes. I couldn’t take my eyes away. Their colloquial way of speaking ends up being almost as removed as a quote from someone in a religious text and yet they often begin their sentences with “Like…”. As Webber puts it himself, “A script rooted in mythology but very attuned to the here and now.”
“In this world dominated by capitalism, power would love having the less powerful maintain their belief in miracles.” To rely on miracles is to surrender any power you had to act freely. “This is a time of good and evil. We’re living in the apocalypse.” It can be difficult to find a moment of stillness, or a place to be still in the world that is forever barrelling forward at break-neck speed. But as the piece came to an end, and a soft spotlight surrounded a changed Jesus, I felt a comfortable stillness settle over me. This is definitely a show that will stay with me for a long time.
The 13th Annual Festival TransAmériques presents
EVAN WEBBER + FRANK COX-O’CONNELL
May 29 + 30 + 31 at 8pm + May 30 at 10:30pm
Duration: 1 hour 10 minutes
In English with French surtitles
Église St Jax
1439, Rue Sainte-Catherine Ouest
514 844 3822 / 1 866 984 3822