The Shen rehearsal room at Signature Theatre is as bare-bones as they come — white walls, a piano in the corner, tape on the tile floor indicating where a stage would be. For the theater’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” director Joe Calarco spruced up the joint.
He assembled four collages and attached them to the room’s walls. One collage was composed of images that show how Jesus has been represented in classical art; one showed Jesus in various pop culture incarnations; one showed people of various faiths worshipping and praying; one was full of images of violence perpetrated by different religions in God’s name.
“Those four things were really important to me for this show,” says Calarco, who hoped the collages would remind him and his cast that they were taking on a story that carries a special kind of baggage.
Written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and initially released as a concept album in 1970 (the Broadway show followed a year later), “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a “rock opera” about the last week of Jesus’ life. It was a pop culture phenomenon in its day — the album hit No. 1 on the Billboard chart, and two competing versions of standout song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” made the Top 40 — but the show also stirred up controversy by, among other things, making Judas a sympathetic character and not including a resurrection scene.
“People have images of the story of Jesus of Nazareth in their heads,” and the show challenges them, Calarco says. “Everyone’s going to come in with their different imagery.” Calarco represented some of that with the rehearsal collages; the true test was making sure the show went beyond those images and icons to create a very human story.
“I think [Webber and Rice] were trying to show [Jesus] as a human being,” Calarco says. “Which for some people was an issue.”
Signature’s production, which runs through July 2, is staged in the round, meaning the action happens not only in front of the audience but next to and sometimes behind it. Calarco uses lights and video projections to create a sense of place; the stage itself is largely blank, with four paths that cut through the seats. So, for both actors and audience, there’s no hiding behind or being distracted by elaborate sets or costumes.
Mounting a minimalist “Superstar” in the round “allows the staging to become more intimate. You’re closer to him, to this figure,” Calarco says. “It just allows us to play it more real. I kept saying, ‘I don’t want you to play iconic ideas of these characters, these people we know so well and who have often been presented so reverently,’ when ‘Superstar’ was blatantly trying to shatter that. There are things in here that are asking you to think differently about this man.”
Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington; through July 2, $40-$103.