Biblical drama lacks Bible's certainty

June 04, 1996|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

First there was "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," then "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Now, on a considerably more modest scale, Baltimore's Mongrel Theatre has created its own biblical play with music, giving feminists equal time.

For that matter, in "Judith," everybody gets equal time, since the six performers rotate into almost all of the roles at various points in this hourlong piece, which is premiering at the Theatre Project.

The theory behind this multiple casting, as one of the actors explains, is that "all of these characters are within us. So let's see where we come from."

In other words, we each have the capacity to be either a hero -- in this case, a heroine -- or a villain. Not a new idea, but also not one that works in this context.

That's because Old Testament stories -- even this one, which, as the production notes put it, was "left out of the final edit because of [its] questionable authenticity" -- tend to be blatantly clear on the issue of good and evil.

Clarity is especially important here, since the story of Judith -- the brave Jewish woman who slew Holofernes to save her people -- justifies a murder. But Mongrel's interpretation

sacrifices that clarity. The problem isn't making sense of who's who, it's making sense of their morality.

Other aspects of this revisionist production don't make much sense, either. Why, for example, is the wooden platform that serves as the main scenic element shaped like a cross? And are we really supposed to believe the revelation that, after a few days in Holofernes' camp, Judith -- devout, celibate and single-minded -- found herself attracted to him?

Then again, perhaps that information is intended to set the scene for Holofernes' final feast, which is depicted as an orgy, with three Judiths engaged in what appears to be a carnal act with three Holoferneses.

"There is no morally wrong," Judith's servant says when the heroine questions whether she has the inner strength to murder Holofernes. But if amorality is central to this play, you have to wonder why Raine Bode, who conceived and directed this project, chose the story of Judith in the first place.

Mongrel's press information states: "The concept of the piece is based around the idea that all people, at one time or another, have found themselves in positions similar to Judith, as well as the other characters in the story." But since one of those characters is a power-crazed despot and another a murderess, identifying with them is a very far stretch.

The performance style, which includes choral speaking and direct audience address -- as well as profanity that has never appeared in any version of the Bible -- suggests the improvisational approach that went into creating this piece, whose updating includes rock-influenced incidental music and sound effects of helicopters and sirens.

Among the performances worthy of note are those of Bethany Hoffmann as a firm but soft-spoken Judith, just before the slaying, and Jason Tinney as a militaristic King Nebuchadnezzar with a Southern accent.

For its first original production, Mongrel selected one of the Bible's quintessential ends-justify-the-means stories. But blurring the edges of this tale of moral absolutism depletes its meaning instead of increasing it.

'Judith'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Through June 9

Tickets: $14

$ Call: (410) 752-8558

Pub Date: 6/04/96

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