Friday, October 26, 2018

Almelem - Creating the narrative and spinning the story

By Byrne Harrison

Some of the stories I've enjoyed most over the years are those that take something completely familiar and turn it on its head.  Sean Williams' remarkable Almelem joins that list with his retelling of the Christ story--one less concerned with the Messiah, and more with the story behind the story.

Almelem (Dani Martineck) is the protege of Gestas (Nat Cassidy), a cynical pimp, merchant and power broker in ancient Judea.  Non-binary in a time when such things didn't have a name, Almelem has heard of a man named John (Mac Rogers), who can wipe clean a person's soul by laying them down in the water of the Jordan.  With the faith of a true believer, Almelem entreats Gestas to help spread the word about John and his miracle baptisms.  Perhaps even show the world that he could be the awaited messiah, sent to expel the Romans and the decadent ruling class, a create an Israel just for the Jews.

Gestas knows the real story behind John the Baptist--they grew up together and Gestas can smell bullshit from a mile away--but he sees the potential in helping him.  Driven not by a lust for power or the chance to create a free Israel, Gestas seems to relish the thought of seeing how far he can make this go.  Whispers in the right ears, talk of miracles, and the eventual help of representatives of the powerful families of Jerusalem, Mary Magdalene (Charleigh E. Parker) and Salome (Yeauxlanda Kay), could turn the fiction into fact.

That is until the arrival of a young man from Nazareth changes the plan.

What follows is an incredible story of how far you can take the truth without it becoming a lie, what it may mean to be born anew, how a cynic and a true believer can serve the same purpose, and how, in the end, the story that survives will always become the truth.

Almelem features a small, but exceptional cast.  Nat Cassidy is astounding as Gestas.  Vulgar, cynical, driven by self-interest, yet with a surprisingly steady (though somewhat skewed) moral compass, Gestas is a great character, and Cassidy is excellent in the role.  His interactions with Dani Martineck's Almelem, especially toward the end of the play when Gestas finds himself thrust into the Christ story in a way he couldn't have imagined, are fantastic.  Also excellent is Kristen Vaughan as Mary, the mother of Jesus.  A simple woman who has come face to face with things completely outside of her ability to comprehend them, Vaughan's Mary is fragile, even a bit broken, but in awe of the role she is playing in this story, even if she can't quite understand it.

Mac Rogers, Chareigh E. Parker, and Yeauxlanda Kay give strong performances, aided in no small part by the excellently nuanced characters that Sean Williams has created.

The play is tautly directed by Jordana Williams, and features a spare, but very adaptable set by Will Lowry, who also designed the lights.

For me, the best part of the show is ambiguity that runs through it.  Is John the Baptist just a scam artist, or did he find his own personal salvation along the way.  Was Mary visited by an angel, and was she the chosen one of God?  Did Almelem find an empty tomb?  Does it even matter in the long run, if the story is accepted as, well, gospel truth?

The fact that I can still ponder these questions days after seeing the play, shows that Williams' well-crafted Almelem has gotten under my skin, in the best possible way.  Entertaining, though-provoking, and a delight to watch, Almelem is not to be missed.

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