Soulpepper Theatre prepares for Easter with The Gospel According to Mark and Subway Stations of the Cross.
The Gospel According to Mark
Subway Stations of the Cross
Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane)
The Gospel runs to March 29
Subway runs to April 4
Right now, Soulpepper Theatre is presenting a pair of captivating performances, Kenneth Welsh’s interpretation of The Gospel According to Mark and Ins Choi’s Subway Stations of the Cross, as two separate items in its 2015 Studio Series. The shows might be even more effective, however, if they were staged as a complementary, Easter-themed double bill: a powerful reading of a sacred text, followed by a funny, surreal, contemporary riff on its imagery and themes. It would certainly benefit Choi’s piece, which is only 45 minutes long, by putting it inside a larger framework and providing it with context for non-Christian audience members.
Welsh, the distinguished Canadian stage and screen actor—and, for fans of the cult TV classic Twin Peaks, the evil Windom Earle—gives a vigorous reading of Mark’s gospel. Silver-haired and sandal-clad, looking like a cross between an old beatnik and a Biblical patriarch, Welsh launches into the story even before he’s stepped onto the stage of the Young Centre’s intimate Tank House Theatre, and he continues nonstop for 100 spellbinding minutes. Mark is the shortest and arguably the most dramatic of the four gospels in the New Testament. Eschewing the nativity, it opens with Jesus’ adult baptism in the river of Jordan and then leaps straightaway into an account of his preaching and miracles. The Jesus depicted here seems to be always on the move, his disciples trying to keep pace behind him, as he climbs mountains, jumps on and off boats, or pops into temples to shake things up. He’s got a message to deliver, mostly in parables, and he sounds impatient when his followers are slow to pick up on it.
This, at least, is the impression you get in Welsh’s urgent, at times humorous, and often passionate interpretation. He reads from the majestic, archaic King James version, that bedrock of the Western canon, in a manner that makes it sound fresh and even colloquial. Welsh’s forerunner for this tour de force is the British actor Alec McCowen, who originally recited the entire gospel in a celebrated solo performance that premiered in London in 1978. At a talk-back following this past Tuesday’s show, Welsh apologized for reading rather than reciting the words, blaming his aging memory (he turns 73 at the end of this month). That was hardly necessary—he may glance at the book, lying open on a lectern in front of him, and turn the pages from time to time, but this is very much a stirring performance of the text and an impressive feat.
The striking first image in Mark’s gospel is that description of a wild John the Baptist, clothed with camel’s hair, crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” The image is evoked again at the start of Subway Stations of the Cross. Ins Choi as a barefoot homeless man with matted hair and blackened fingernails, draped in an assortment of Biblical-looking garments, shuffles along a dark subway platform, shouting out the words from the gospel. Before we know it, however, they’ve mutated into the opening lines of a crazy, playful rap.
This voice crying in the subterranean wilderness turns out to be not just a modern-day prophet, but also a social commentator, scholar, and wryly amusing lunatic—not to mention a musician and a spoken-word poet. He makes caustic observations about our society, expounds on the universality and timelessness of myths, and questions how Jesus would be received if he showed up today. (Barred from churches with a dress code, he surmises.) Then he whips out his miniature guitar and treats us to a cute, irrelevant ballad about 1980s television sitcoms. The centrepiece of his performance, however, is solemn and haunting. It’s a meditation on the nativity and the last supper, including an eerie imitation of the eucharist, celebrated with a subway bench for an altar, in which a loaf of bread, drenched in wine, is transformed into a sodden lump resembling flesh and blood. The sacred heart of Jesus, perhaps?
Choi, having already written a well-made—and highly successful—play with Kim’s Convenience, probably feels no compulsion to give this work more dramatic development. It’s something he’s been performing and tinkering with for years, culminating this month with the publication of the text by House of Anansi Press. Still, you imagine what the show could be if he also transformed his homeless man from simply a strange, scruffy alter ego into a full-blown character.
As it stands now, Subway Stations of the Cross is just an entertaining introduction to another facet of the playwright, that of poet and songwriter. But treated as a postmodern companion piece to Welsh’s traditional gospel reading, Choi’s show gains in resonance, if not in meaning.