The guitar wails above the heart-deep drumbeat. Dirty hands clank against a chain-link cage and the old story rushes at us, hammering home the memory of ego and betrayal that killed a man preaching kindness.
Jesus Christ Superstar was written in 1970, and the musical cannot be separated from its time. Any number of political or theological questions could be posed about the script. For instance, I’m never going to like the way creators Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber chose to portray the power structure of the time as a Jewish mafia, and I take issue with their modernized Mary Magdalene.
But if you allow the script to be a product of its time, this noisy and chaotic telling of the Passion of Christ is fascinating.
Jesus Christ Superstar takes place within seven days: A man named Joshua, renamed Jesus in the Greek translation, enters the holy city of Jerusalem, upsets the political and religious status quo and is condemned to death by the occupying Roman government. Cottage Theatre’s telling of the story, directed by Tony Rust, focuses on two major elements: the destructive ego of human beings and the humanity of Jesus.
There are many strong elements in this production, but none of them would matter if Kory Weimer failed to convince in the role of Jesus. Weimer’s Jesus has no awareness of his own divinity and therefore works through the psychological stress of walking into a painful death for a group of followers who don’t appear particularly intelligent or grateful. He is adept at showing flashes of the charisma Jesus must have had, even as his character wrestles with the task set before him. It’s a very strong performance.
Melissa Miller is cross-cast as Judas, and it works. Ward Fairbairn brings a dose of sanity as Pilate. The chorus is huge in this play, and there’s lots of good stage work by people with no lines at all.
Rust’s set and setting are inspired. The production is set in a modern day police state; there are clever touches, like “SPQR” (i.e., Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, or “The Senate and the People of Rome”) emblazoned across the camouflage uniforms of the Roman centurions, and a few self-referential Jesus Christ Superstar T-shirts worn by chorus members. The show does not shy away from violence, and when layered with loud music, it creates some intensely uncomfortable moments.
This is a story the Christian world and, increasingly, the world at large is fascinated by. When there is so much to examine in the life of Jesus, the decision to focus on one week of betrayal is a curious choice.
In an introduction to the play before curtain, Davis N. Smith quotes Rust as saying: “In light of the recent tragedy in Roseburg, this is a show that humanizes characters that are often seen in the abstract, reminding us that death and suffering happen not only to characters in a story but to living, breathing human beings we love and care for.” ν
Jesus Christ Superstar runs through Oct. 25 at Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove; $19-$24, cottagetheatre.org.