Bringing ‘the Word’ to life on the stage in ‘The Gospel of John’ at The Sheen Center

For this Christmas season, The Sheen Center – the arts center of the Archdiocese of New York – presents a limited engagement of The Gospel of John, a slightly condensed one-man performance of the canonical book of the New Testament, conceived and brought to life by Broadway veteran Ken Jennings (whose edits were made in consideration of the show’s running time and in consultation with four Christian ecclesiastics). According to the award-winning actor (acclaimed for his role in Sweeney Todd, with top honors from both the Drama Desk and Theatre World Awards), he first memorized the text as a prayer during a difficult time in his life, in accordance with his training in Johannine theology and the advice he received in his Jesuit schooling, that he should “Never forget to pray.”

Ken Jennings. Photo by Maria Baranova.

In light of his specific religious background and long-time devotion, it is no surprise that Jennings’ presentation, under the direction of John Pietrowski, is very personal, profoundly felt, and done in the authentic manner in which it would have been at the time of Saint John – as an intimate direct-address account of what the “Beloved Disciple” and Evangelist witnessed firsthand, which was repeated and passed down as oral history before being codified circa 60-130 AD. The rich chronicle of events from Christ’s life, miracles, passion, and resurrection, contained in the original source material and recounted on stage, include such iconic episodes (in what has been called “the greatest story ever told”) as the Wedding at Cana, the Woman of Samaria, the Healing of the Sick, and the Raising of Lazarus, followed by the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Denial of Peter, the Taking of Christ, Christ before Pilate, and the Crucifixion, and concluding with Christ’s appearances to Mary Magdalene, the Apostles at the Supper at Emmaus, and the Doubting Thomas. It is all relayed by one man, whose inspired delivery enables us to envision it in our minds’ eye.

Jennings assumes the identities of all of the Biblical personages cited in the Gospel, imagining how they would have sounded, felt, and acted in the most human of terms. Pietrowski moves him around the space, standing, sitting, and shifting from one side of a conversation to the other, in animated dialogues, monologues, and characterizations that employ emotive gestures, legible facial expressions, distinctive voices, and believable feelings and psychology for each individual and every situation. He creates clear contrasts between the harsh vernacular of the antagonists and persecutors of Christ, the soaring poetic eloquence of John’s storytelling and writing, and the gentle guiding voice, divine wisdom, and didactic parables of the words attributed to Jesus, with their emphasis on love, knowledge, and belief.

Ken Jennings. Photo by Maria Baranova.

The actor’s heartfelt and captivating performance is supported by a simple design, allowing us to focus on his words, with minimal distraction (in keeping with the opening line of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word”). Charlie Corcoran‘s set consists of a bare platform stage with just a wooden bench and Bible, before a hanging backdrop of wrinkled beige cloth that evokes the parchment of an ancient manuscript. Abigail Hoke-Brady‘s lighting reflects the changing times of day and night, moments of darkness and illumination, and creates a flood of blue in front of the stage to represent the river Jordan, in the famous scene of Christ’s encounter with John the Baptist. A subtle soundscape by M. Florian Staab provides a hushed background of angry crowds, storm-tossed waves, and sacral music suited to the episodes imparted by Jennings, who wears an everyday plaid shirt and blue jeans (costume design by Tracy Christensen) to underscore the basic unadulterated truth of what he says.

Whether or not you’re a believer in the religion of the New Testament, The Sheen’s production of The Gospel of John offers a gripping narrative conveyed by a compelling actor, who captures the exquisite beauty of its language and brings immediacy and understanding to the age-old story.

Running Time: Approximately one hour and 45 minutes, without intermission.

The Gospel of John plays through Sunday, January 5, 2020, at The Sheen Center – 18 Bleecker Street, NYC. For tickets, call (212) 925-2812, or purchase them online.


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