THE TRIALS OF BROTHER JERO by Wole Soyinka; directed and designed by Alan Sharpe; costumes by Linda Parker; lighting by Kevin Johnson; with Kevin Johnson, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Paula Pee, Sam Delove and Richard Pleasant. At the WPA through Sunday.

After "Death and King's Horseman" at the Kennedy Center last season, someone dubbed playwright Wole Soyinka "the Nigerian Sophocles." Now it appears that "the Nigerian Aristophanes" would have been just as apt. n

"The Trials of Brother Jero," which opened at the Washington Project for the Arts last weekend and continues there through Sunday, is a jolly, frothy comedy about a sham preacher with a poor and passionate flock of faithful who gather daily on a beach to be roused into a Christian fervor. He is also an amateur oracle given to such low-risk predictions as telling a follower she will live to be 80. "If it doesn't come true," he points out, "she won't find out till she's safely on the other side."

Brother Jero has one particularly devoted disciple whom he keeps at bay by refusing to let the man beat his wife. "You must let me beat her! Just once!" the disciple insists from his knees. But Jero stands firm until his discovery that the wife is the same woman who has been hounding him about an unpaid debt. Then he gives his approval to the prospective beating and sends the plot hurtling dizzily forward.

Director Alan Sharpe has given "Brother Jero" a lively staging, but the relatively inexperienced and non-Nigerian cast makes for a certain authenticity gap. As Brother Jero, Kevin Johnson seems over-elaborate and over-formal, although he handles the preaching portion of his duties smartly.Among the other uneven talents involved in this production, one stands out -- as he would in far more intimidating company. Stanley Wayne Mathis is an absolute cut-up as the frenetically earnest disciple Brother Chume, who takes over Brother Jero's services one day and implores God: "Those who be petty trader today, make them big contractor tomorrow."

When Mathis is doing one of his shticks, "The Trials of Brother Jero" is a delight. Otherwise, it is a pleasant evening that barely hints at the full flavor of Soyinka's work, reaffirming, even so, that this is a playwright worth following.