"St. Mark's Gospel," from the Bible, produced by Arthur Cantor and Greer Garson, directed by Alec McCowen, with Eric Booth. At the Terrace Theater through June 28
"St. Mark's Gospel," which opened a two-week run at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater last night, is, quite simply, that -- the Gospel according to St. Mark, King James Version, recited, or rather retold, by one actor. There are a table, three chairs, a carafe of water and a glass, a stage and lights and that's it.
If a show like "Barnum" is a seven-course meal of sacher torte, "St. Mark's Gospel" is bread and water. It is very good bread to be sure -- but the meal is spare, simple and ascetic. Go ye not unto this production after a large meal with the fruit of the vine, for verily you may fall asleep. But do go; it is a challenge worth taking.
In stripping down to the bare essentials -- a lighted space, a simply dressed body, a voice and words, actor Eric Booth gives us the opportunity to use our imaginations and our ears, to in effect tune in on a very pristine level. At times one wished that Booth had a more compelling voice, and could decide whether he wanted to use a English accent or standard American, or had a less boyish interpretation of Mark, through whose words we are told the story of Jesus Christ. But his performance is strong and vibrant -- perhaps one of the nicest things to say about it is that after the first 15 minutes or so we forgot to worry about whether he was going to be able to remember the whole two hours' worth of scripture.
Booth, who was directed by Alec McCowen, the British actor who originated the performance of "St. Mark's Gospel" in 1977, begins in a specifically asual manner. "I've spoken to the playwright about the heat," he joked (don't worry, the theater is well air-conditioned). "If you feel like laughing, go ahead," he urged. "I'm sure we're equipped with lightning rods." l
But while the framing is causual, an effort to beckon the audience into what night appear to be an intimidating evening of Bible-reading, the interpretation is more formal. Booth takes the role of the storyteller, but not one who isjust a speaker of words. He reenacts some scenes (with the table turned into "an house" or a ship), uses voices to create other characters and mime to create children and some props. The laughs come with contemporary allusions -- as, for example, with the woman who came to Jesus to be healed of "an issue of blood" she'd had for 12 years.
When Booth says she "had suffered many things of many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was nothing bettered, but rather grew worse," he sounds like he's saying "of course the doctors couldn't do anything; they just took her money."
A serious clergyman might object to the casual quality, which sometimes has an effect similar to wearing blue jeans in church. Some clergymen we've heard might also benefit from listening to Eric Booth, whose goal is not to intimidate us but to have us hear the words.