The clever and provocative premise of Washington-area playwright AP Carroll’s new play is that the Roman occupation of the land of Israel, the appearance of Jesus Christ (Kofi Owusu) and the rise of Christianity took place not two thousand years ago but in the present day.
The ultra-profane Octavian, Augustus Caesar (Thomas McGrath) runs his empire like a Mafia don. He is sending Pontius Pilate (Elliot Krashner), an ambitious politician who is married to Octavian’s niece Claudia (Emily Kester), to Judea to restore order to that troubled land and capture and kill the terrorist Barrabas (Joe Feldman). Succeed, the Caesar hints, and he may name Pilate his successor. Fail, and – well, you can hear the Emperor on the phone with Pilate’s predecessor, who he has demoted to handservant – to Caesar’s caddy.
It could have happened.
Carroll uses this riff on history to make some thoughtful and original observations about the uses of ambition, the nature of power and responsibility, and of betrayal and its justification. In this Pilate-centric view of the origins of Christianity, we get well-drawn portraits of the sorts of people who come to prominence in an occupied land. The High Priest Ciaphas (Justin Mohay) protects and betrays in a dangerous dance to hold onto what power he has. The figurehead queen Herod (Emily Whitworth) will do everything in her power to please her masters unless to do so would displease herself.
Offstage television broadcasts carry the burden of exposition and also serve as a tease; the last bit of information just before they fade off always has to do with the appearance of a strange preacher-magician from Galilee. Carroll’s language is beautiful, even poetic; occasionally dipping into writerly self-indulgence but on the most part authentic, and true to its purpose.
I wish I could say that I saw a production worthy of the play. But, alas, what Director Ed Churchill puts on the stage seems under-rehearsed and not completely thought through. Pilate must be a careful balance of idealism and ambition, but Krashner, an experienced actor, gives us a fellow who merely seems foolish and a little whimsical. Kester as Claudia is expressive in face and gesture, but her delivery is without inflection. It goes up and down in volume but otherwise does nothing to help us understand the emotions behind Claudia’s words.
McGrath has great stage presence as Augustus, but he fights his lines. Colton Timmerman, who has an important role as Pilate’s aide, is a bit of a fumblemouth. Similar problems beset other members of the cast.
On the other hand, there are at least two cast members who are terrific. John Crowley plays the truculent Tiberius with the singleminded rage which characterized the real Tiberius; he gives Pilate – and us – an antagonist we can hate and fear throughout the play. Crowley doesn’t present much emotional range, but that is not his fault, or even Carroll’s – it’s the fault of Tiberius himself, who was never known to laugh or to say a gentle word. The other notable performance is Keegan Cassady as the snarky Marcus Skippio, Pilate’s old rival who now looks for every opportunity, from his position in the Roman Senate, to undermine Pilate’s efforts in Judea. Cassady is both witty and plausible every moment he is on stage. There are some other good performances, too.
This is not a mess, but it is disappointing, considering how much the play could have been. Churchill bears at least some of the responsibility. In addition to underperformances on the part of some of the cast, Churchill makes some strange blocking choices, the most conspicuous of which is to leave an empty couch downstage center, thus blocking our view of Pilate and his aide, who are conversing at Pilate’s desk, upstage left.
Carroll’s script, while very good, is not without weaknesses. There are two in particular: one procedural and one substantive. Given that Carroll has chosen to make Barrabas a terrorist, Pilate’s decision to release him to the demanding crowd is inexplicable (in scripture, Barrabas was a thief, not a terrorist), and nothing in Carroll’s text helps us to understand it. And the script, particularly in its earlier moments, is littered with scene changes. The production makes them efficiently, but that’s not the point; every time the lights dim we are taken out of the fictive dream.
So the production of ECCE I saw was notso hotso, but your results may vary. It may be worth your while to see this show toward the end of its run, when the cast might be further along. The nice thing about a weak production of a good play is that it almost always has a chance to get better; a good production of a bad play can only get worse.
ECCE has 5 performances, ending Jul7 28. 2012, at Warehouse, 645 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC
Details and tickets
Tim rates this 3 out of a possible 5.