Theater

'St. Mark's Gospel': Michael Tolaydo Plays It by the Book

Getting the Word out: Tolaydo in "St. Mark's Gospel" at H Street Playhouse.
Getting the Word out: Tolaydo in "St. Mark's Gospel" at H Street Playhouse. (By Bruce Robey)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, June 21, 2008

Religion is flowering on local stages of late, from Theater J ("David in Shadow and Light") to Studio Theatre ("This Beautiful City"), but Michael Tolaydo is offering the most direct approach yet.

Tolaydo is starring in the accomplished and understated "St. Mark's Gospel" for the Theater Alliance, and the text is exactly what it sounds like: the second book of the New Testament. Perhaps this is penance for the previous show at the H Street Playhouse, which was an irreverent blast -- Forum Theatre's intensely entertaining production of Stephen Adly Guirgis's frequently profane "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot."

There's no such flamboyance here, even if lodging a chunk of the Bible in his mind and serving it up for contemplative public consumption amounts to a kind of tour de force. Tolaydo offers the material respectfully, on a stage that's bare save for a table, three chairs, some drinking water and -- just in case memory fails -- a copy of the script.

He didn't need it last weekend, nearly 30 years removed from the days when he toured with this show, originally performed by Sir Alec McCowan and personally handed to Tolaydo. The moves are simple: Tolaydo, in khakis and a sport coat, drifts from spot to spot as Jesus travels, here causing dissent in a temple, there executing the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and at the back of the stage peering over the edge of an imagined cliff as a herd of swine tumbles into the ocean.

It's just evocative enough to qualify as drama. Tolaydo (who speaks with a slight British accent) is cautious with characterization, donning particular voices and attitudes lightly and quickly, as if it would be vulgar to make too much of a show. Instead, he focuses on the tension and occasional wonder, the sense of argument as Jesus lives and teaches and badgers his listeners with an implied "Hey -- don't you get it yet?"

Nothing's more vivid than the skepticism, where Tolaydo feels free to take a bit of license. Figures come to life in their disbelief and smug cross-examinations, and it's frequently in these passages that the intellectual quality of the lessons comes through. Tolaydo's eyebrows rise and he pauses, letting parables or instruction hang in the air for our consideration.

Occasionally the show dries up like a reading in a Sunday service, but Tolaydo and director Paul Takacs take the text for what it is, whether that means enduringly lyrical ("What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder," "Suffer the little children to come unto me," etc.) or rather flat. Nicholas John's lighting design is subtle, and there are no sound effects to speak of. It's just Tolaydo and this slice of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

So humbled is the actor that toward the end (the hours in Gethsemane and thereabouts) he performs with his hands in his pockets. This is plainly an act of faith, but is it in St. Mark's words, or the thespian's craft? Both, surely. It's not revelatory theater, but it's dignified and insistent -- a disciplined, purposeful act.

St. Mark's Gospel, directed by Paul Takacs. Costume design, Leon Wiebers. About two hours. Through July 6 at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE. Call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.theateralliance.com


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