Sacrosanct or sacrilege, two companies reboot theatrical classics with a variety-show feel. Reboot Theatre Company’s Jesus Christ Superstar closes tonight at Theatre Off Jackson, and Pony World Theatre’s Not / Our Town performs at 12th Avenue Arts through 12/3.
In remixing popular tales, two theatre companies go boldly where many have gone before. Did these shows need a reboot? Well, maybe.
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Whatever your religious persuasion and views on their veracity, it’d be tough to deny that the Bible contains some of the most dramatic stories ever told. So if you’re going to put a dramatic spin on those, you’d better do it well. Was the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar (music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice), already a spin on the biblical stories of Jesus’ meteoric rise and fall, ready for its own spin? I had my doubts. Top of mind was the question, Why?
Reboot’s take convinced me, somewhat at least, of the case for an update. Surely we were ready for an influencer who spoke our language, where fame is attained and lost through easily disseminated media, easily combustible favor, and easily pressurized high-stakes popularity contests, as they’re moralized, monetized, politicized, or all of the above.
A lot of those themes were sketched out wonderfully well under Harry Turpin’s directorial vision, with ever-present glowing screens, glossy campaign messages, and the masses all too breezily swayed by the political winds. There’s also a ton of talent in the cast, including vocal standouts Shana E. Emile (as Judas) and Jordyn Day Palmer (as Mary). And the staging is a whole lot of fun, the apex of which is a tap dance routine by a hot pink-clad King Herod (Natalie Moe, with Mariesa Gonzale and Aaron Jin).
Other updates, meanwhile, didn’t make much sense. The CIA-style quartet of besuited sweepers make for impressive villains: Khane Berry is devilish, Noel Pederson crackles with contempt, David Breyman is a stone face devoid of mercy, and Gonzale is a convincing stooge. But would anything like their cohort really be dispatched for a burgeoning social media star? Unlikely. Much more believable is the conceit of rising politician Pontius Pilate, which Jasmine Joshua royally hams up while maintaining some modern relevance to value-driven decision-making sacrificed to political aims.
The biggest problem is with the title role. In Reboot’s setup, Jesus (played by William Douglas Johnson) is a sad emo boy plucked from a bus station. His relationship with Mary Magdalene is a submissive boi with mommy issues. (A particularly graphic flogging scene later on takes a further leap into BDSM imagery.) He might play the guitar well, but he’s no superstar persona. So it’s a stretch to imagine him as the target of any sustained campaign: Why are those in power, along with his supposed hordes of former fans, so intent on shutting him down? Why is this conception of Jesus anyone to follow, let alone worry about?
Here, the title Superstar is more influenced than influencer. And if the show committed to that angle and spun it out, it could be an interesting take; but it appears it’s less an intentional choice and more in tension with the drama.
Alas. That said, despite some muddled narrative in the updates, Reboot’s reboot goes full-force into some glittery storytelling, and that makes for a very fun show to watch.
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Up the hill, Pony World Theatre’s dramatic remix of Thornton Wilder’s classic, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town, takes a similar approach. Writer/director Brendan Healy’s take, called Not / Our Town, maintains the story’s general narrative theme, while transforming it with lots of add-ons appealing to audiences craving variety, gimmick and, collectively, a big chunk of creative control.
The setup turns the original’s narrator/stage manager into two competing roles (played by Mark Fullerton and Amber Walker), individuals representing generations divided on whether Our Town is a stale relic or not.
If the aim is to warm people up to the original Our Town, or to appeal to fans of the original simply by virtue of that, it probably doesn’t much succeed — at least if we extrapolate from a survey with an n of 2. A fan of the classic work didn’t like this portrayal. I don’t particularly care about the original work, and this one didn’t really change that.
But I did care about the show, and a big part of that is I care about the actors in it. Virtually anyone seeing plays in Seattle will have seen at least some among the names and faces who make up this ensemble-driven show: Tyler Campbell, Sophia Franzella, Kathy Hsieh, Agastya Kohli, Jesse Parce, Alanah Pascual, and Lisa Viertel, joining Fullerton and Walker.
And, if it’s done well, I also like a gimmick.
Here, there are loads of them, any of which might show up on a given night: puppetry, movie-trailer voiceover, mad science, German performance art, an unrehearsed scene, an alternate playwright, a torrent of things falling from the sky as the set’s many umbrellas stand idly by. Each night’s audience decides via pre-show survey; so, in theory, the twists one audience sees might be totally different from what ends up on stage the next night. By bringing together a bunch of theatre tricks, the dramatics become the drama. Not / Our Town does something different and unexpected; and the audience, usually a (mostly) passive participant, becomes the deciding factor.
The show is about Our Town, sure. More interestingly, to me anyway, it’s a one-room microcosm of our theatre community, with a big cast of fan-favorite actors doing all sorts of weird things (including, perhaps, growing increasingly perturbed dancing a third or fourth time to Dua Lipa); a behind-the-scenes team designing the chaos and keeping it well-contained and largely intentional; a writer and director making ever-stranger staging choices; and audience members, suddenly useful in making something, squabbling in a tie-breaker, and groaning or whooping over a theatrical choice for which someone among us is to blame.
Its the quirks of Not / Our Town that make for an endearing and enjoyable show. With beloved faces on stage and in the audience, if ever there were an Our Town of Seattle theatre, this is it.
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Jesus Christ Superstar runs through 11/19 at Theatre Off Jackson in Seattle’s International District. Tickets start at $5.50 (sliding-scale for all), here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are all gender-neutral, multi-stall; theatre main entrance is down a flight of stairs, but is wheelchair accessible through an alley entrance — please contact venue ahead of time to ensure smooth access.
Not / Our Town runs through 12/3 at 12th Avenue Arts on Capitol Hill in Seattle. Tickets are $24, here. Accessibility notes: restrooms are gendered and multi-stall; there is one single-stall, gender-neutral, accessible restroom near the theatre entrance. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
For shows by date, see the Performance Calendar.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.