Resurrection redux

Really, we don't want to give Cameron Cobb a big head--being 23 and talented can be a recipe for obnoxiousness--but the recent world premiere of his Christ resurrection redux Didymus packs a quiet, even occasionally comedic wallop. Director Kimberlyn Crowe launched her theater company, Ground Zero, out of sheer passion for this script, which has been workshopped at both Southern Methodist University and the Undermain. That conviction makes her an appropriate midwife for a play about passionate believers and the one man who must depart their ranks because he knows that they have sacrificed a material truth to feed the bonfire of their own desperate faith.

Extravagant interpretations of Bible stories on the American stage have garnered much publicity recently--Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi and Paul Rudnick's The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told all got the groundlings fired up (and bravo!), but unfortunately for rather superficial reasons. Didymus hews to a leaner, more conservative approach by asking a simple question: Is a truth diminished when it's cloaked in a fictional event? Or, to think about it another way, we can all learn something from Jesus' teachings, even those who choose not to call themselves Christians. So does it really matter if he never existed, and if he did exist, should we even bother worrying whether he was the son of God? As one character beautifully wonders aloud in this play, "What faith is it that dies with its proof?"

I'm pleased to report that the opening night of Ground Zero's debut wasn't at all the somber, sonorous Biblical lesson it could have been. Director Kimberlyn Crowe has wisely chosen to emphasize the humor in Cobb's script. Right before his plight dips into sorrow, the apostle Didymus Thomas (David Stroh) gets entangled in a spiritual dilemma that's funny in a way Kafka or Gogol would have appreciated. He is privy to the fact that the rabid cult of Jesus' followers, who've been whipped up by the post-crucifixion disappearance of his body from the Jerusalem tomb, have been tricked by two bumbling apostles. Matthias (Lyn Mathis) and Cleopas (David Larson) have yanked his body out of its resting place under the supervision of arrogant Peter(Gregory Gormley), who is the engineer of Jesus' post-mortem mythology. Peter and Didymus clash, then finally and reluctantly agree to participate in the conspiracy to dispose of the body so that his followers, including mother Mary (Joan Ahrenstein) and redeemed sinner Mary Magdalene (Lulu Ward), will have a diagnosable virus on which to hang their feverish need to believe. And then Matthias and Cleopas lose the body, and Didymus separates himself from the other apostles and goes wandering in the night. He grows so obsessed with his irksome knowledge that he misses the gentle, redemptive presence of the strangers that he meets, including a loquacious Arabic fisherman named Omar (a hilarious Bryan Boatright).

Didymus isn't tightly plotted as much as it is a string of anecdotes. But the common theme--how ritual and presentation and make-believe can be meaningful for some people, hollow and unconvincing for others--draws them together impressively. Tyrus (John Crawford) and Ceiphus (Bryan Boatright) are Roman guards protecting the body of Jesus. When drunk, Ceiphus recounts with awe stories of the demonstration of Jesus' powers, but upon sobriety cynically sells out to the Sanhedrin rulers, the Jewish elites who want to quell belief in the resurrection. He is bribed into telling a version of what happened to the body that is, ironically, the truth. A sober Tyrus, meanwhile, only becomes a true believer when Didymus mockingly dons Jesus' burial shroud and proclaims himself a celestial being. Meanwhile, Matthias, inflamed by his own action to hide the body, angrily recoils when an old man (Bill MacKenzie) shows he can turn water into wine.

The problem with faith, the play suggests, isn't that there's no proof of God; it's that it takes different kinds of evidence to convince different people--preferably, the kind of proof that flatters, not challenges, the believer. By "causing" the resurrection of Christ, Matthias has made himself God-like, and he won't brook alternative versions.

Most of the cast took it to the hoop on Thursday's opening, turning the play's sometimes florid language into punchy and convincing declarations. Stroh, Gormley, and Mathis were all exemplary in their sweatily competing versions of faith. Baby-faced Stroh, especially, made an accessible but not too alienating anti-hero Didymus, the man who can't see the passion for all the play. And Gormley should act more in this town--bottom line. Amid all her laser-like masculine concentration, Joan Arenstein seemed lost and blurry as Mary. It feels like hers is the most underwritten part of all, and a thankless one to boot. How do you make a maternal icon compelling when she basically exists just to comfort people? Still, Arenstein closes this play by leading a lovely scene in which she glows as warmly as the candle she stands over.

When a play messes with issues as profound as those in Didymus, there's a tendency to measure the medium against the message, to ask whether the play's examination of all these big questions could hang around as long as the big questions themselves. I don't know whether this script has any hope of immortality--to that tiny minority of the population for whom believing is as reflexive as breathing, the response to this play's struggles might just be, "Well, duh." But I do know it's a remarkably sophisticated--and, even better, downright entertaining--document for a 23-year-old kid to have created. I'm thrilled--even a tad frightened--to speculate what kind of material Cameron Cobb will be producing when he hits 40.

Didymus runs through April 17. Call (214) 827-5746.

Most theater producers will stir your coffee at intermission if it makes you happy. They often do the equivalent onstage, slinging homogenized fare that does all the work for audiences to keep you fat, happy, and sleepy. Scott Osborne and Patti Kirkpatrick, founders of Our Endeavors, are more the drill sergeant-psychotic aerobics instructor types: They want you on your feet, thinking, questioning, reassessing all the deep issues with their production choices. But they're not above entertaining, which is why their latest show, Loved It/Hated It: Two Distinct Plays, has at least a 50 percent chance of winning your heart. Maybe more.

"Our feeling is that we want people to love both of them, or love one and hate the other one," Osborne says with a perverse laugh. "We definitely don't want people to hate both of them. To that extent, we're including a ballot in the program so people can vote their feelings about the shows."

There's a lot of solid talent behind this evening of one-acts, so hopefully adverse reactions will be inspired by the confrontational material onstage rather than by the quality of its delivery. The evening begins with famed British leftist experimentalist Howard Barker. Wounds to the Face is his examination of identity through a series of vignettes about the human face. The kinda-sorta plot concerns a soldier who gets his face blown off by a grenade and the plastic surgeon hired to treat it. There's also a dictator, a painter, and a Man in the Iron Mask-type character.

"With this play, Barker asks us a beautiful and disturbing question: 'Who does your face belong to?'" says the show's director, Donna Sherritt. "I've talked to female friends before, and we think about that all the time: 'Am I putting on makeup for me or other people?' Barker expands on this by using different characters, including a dictator whose face is everywhere. Think about war-torn countries ruled by dictators. The image of Saddam Hussein's face is everywhere in Iraq. The people need it to blame and to worship. Now, does it belong more to them or Hussein?"

Following up the Barker piece will be the toxic comedy by Wallace Shawn, Marie and Bruce. Director Mark Farr compares Shawn's Marie and Bruce to Sartre's No Exit, except that the isolated hell in Shawn's script is a heterosexual relationship between a very powerful woman and an easily cowed man.

"Marie is the epitome of the emasculating woman, and Bruce is the epitome of the emasculated man," Farr says. "It's about getting into a relationship that you feel you'll never get out of. Maybe I'm trying to purge some of my own experience with that. The script is hellish, but it's also hilarious. There's this vicious hopelessness about it that's very appropriate. When you're talking about this kind of emptiness, there's no better way to illustrate it than with a sense of humor."

Both Farr and Donna Sherritt say their shows may make you squirm, but they're not entirely devoid of entertainment (Farr says entertainment is his first concern as a director). But he sums up the balloting for Loved It/Hated It--and the complex reaction Our Endeavors hopes to provoke--this way: "On the one hand, I don't want to lose. On the other hand, I don't want to win."

Loved It/Hated It: Two Distinct Plays opens April 8 and runs through May 1 in Frank's Place at the Kalita Humphreys. Call (972) 355-2879.

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Jimmy Fowler