YOUR ARMS TOO SHORT TO BOX WITH GOD-At the Warner through September 23.
When the body of a dancer playing Jesus is taken off the cross and laid on the Warner Theater stage, in "Your Arms Too Short to Box with God," why does one peer over other audience heads to see if there are signs of renewed life?
It is not, as is pointed out in Vinnette Carroll's "celebration in song" version of the Gospel of St. Matthew, an unfamiliar story. One cannot be wondering whether Jesus will rise.
Nor does the form, in the American black gospel tradition, contain any surprises, even for those who missed this play in its last Washington run. The Passion play in folk vernacular is, after all, the longest continuously running show in the Western world.
Yet done with imagination and energy, it keeps one enthralled with a theatrical element working the way suspense can in new plays. This version is something more than a ritual rich in song and dance: It conveys the excitement that served historically to help evolve medieval liturgical drama into modern secular theater.
Elijah Gill, who dances Jesus, is, with an expression of solemn nobility on his cleanshaven face and a restrained but powerful use of his body, stunning. So is the way that the different talents of William Keebler Hardy Jr. as a jaunty preacher; Jennifer Yvette Holliday, with her powerhouse vibrato; Faruma S. Williams dancing Judas' frantic guilt, and L. Michael Gray's enthusiastic comedy have been used in the music of Alex Bradford and the choreography of Talley Beatty.
However, the exaggerated amplification that was presenting problems at the last preview is an insult to a company whose voices could surely fill even the tricky crevices of the Warner.
Two concessions to the paying audience are also jarring. An ecumenical song called "Everybody Has His Own Way," suggesting that whatever anybody believes or doesn't believe is equally fine, seems apologetic after the strength of this specific demonstration of religious tradition. It is condescending to feel you have to tell Jews or Buddhists, by name, that it's all right for them to appreciate the show without compromising themselves.
And adding a musical program for a second act, after the Crucifixion and Resurrection, just to fill out the time expectations of the commercial theater, doesn't make dramatic sense. A strongly performed Passion play is not going to send anyone home emotionally unsatisfied.