Wednesday, December 11, 2019

The Gospel of John - An Enlightening Tale, Masterfully Told

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The key to telling a story, no matter how old it may be, is the ability of the one doing the telling to imbue it with passion from the here and now. A particularly tall order when the story in question is, in all probability, quite familiar to the audience that’s come to hear it. Actor Ken Jennings delivering all that’s required and more in his very engaging one-man show, The Gospel of John. This offering currently running at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture.

Walking slowly around the stage,
Jennings, who also conceived the piece, assumes an almost reverent position as he prepares to begin. One that has him stretching his legs in a manner as if getting ready to exercise, before seeming to lapse into reflective prayer. He starting the performance proper, after giving the audience some reminders about cell phones and text messaging, by saying "In the beginning was the word". He then proceeds to show just how impactful the word can be.

The tale Jennings has come to relate starts with John The Baptist. A man sent by God to foreshadow the coming of Jesus. The narrative exploring John's purpose, his first meeting with Jesus and how he knew immediately that this man was the Son of God. The story then chronicling Jesus' travels and his actions on Earth. Actions such as his teachings, his gathering of disciples and performing of miracles, and his encounters with those who opposed him. The latter of which would eventually lead to his betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection.

                                       Ken Jennings in The Gospel of John © 2019 Maria Baranova 

But Jennings does far more than deliver a simple litany of what has occurred. Through his performance, he allows every one of the instances described to come vibrantly to life. Playing multiple characters, Jennings is also able to make each one appear completely distinct. The attitudes of said characters ranging from the calm, quiet and all-knowing manner of Jesus, to the more assertive John, the excitable Peter, and the irritation of Pontius Pilate; who finds himself pressured by an angry mob to order Jesus' crucifixion.

Also particularly compelling is the astonishment and wonder expressed by those who witness the miracles Jesus performs. As well as the condescension from those who demand answers from Jesus, only to become incensed when he responds with words they don't want to hear. Most important of all, there is never a time when Jennings comes off as someone telling you what you should believe. Rather, he lets the tale stand on its own and if the audience is drawn into what is being said, that's their choice.

If there is one problem with the play, it's that it assumes (and rightly so for the most part) that those who attend will have both the knowledge and interest in the subject matter. No argument there, but for someone like yours truly, whose closest religious experience as a child was watching his mother light the menorah during each night of Chanukah, it would have been nice to see some maps projected on the background showing the various locations of the places described. 

                                         Ken Jennings in The Gospel of John © 2019 Maria Baranova 

John Pietrowski's direction is very strong. He giving Jennings free reign to impart the story, but never allowing him to dwell too long on a particular point, so as not to overstay his welcome. Charlie Corcoran’s set, basically a bare stage, works fine; as does the lighting by Abigail Hoke-Brady and sound design by M. Florian Staab.

Passionate and involving from start to finish, The Gospel of John offers a masterful performance by Jennings as he takes an oft-heard tale and makes it seem as powerful and inviting as the day it was first told.

The Gospel of John

Conceived and Performed by Ken Jennings
Scenic Design: Charlie Corcoran
Costume Design: Tracy Christensen
Lighting Design: Abigail Hoke-Brady
Sound Design: M. Florian Staab
Production Management: Drew Francis
Press Representative: Keith Sherman & Associates
Associate Producer: Julia O'Brien
Production Stage Manager: Danielle Constance
Directed by John Pietrowski

Presented by The Sheen Center for Thought and Culture
18 Bleecker Street
Tickets: (212) 925-2812 or
Running 1 Hour, 50 Minutes, no intermission
Closes: December 29, 2019

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