“My Lord, why have you abandoned me?” cries Jesus, his last words from his heart that rock our souls without deadening our ears. Argentine actor, the gifted Mariano Mazzei as Jesus, looks directly at us from the cross, and into our souls with penetrating eyes. And in playwright Mariano Moro’s stunning poetic outpouring in Jesucristo, the character of Jesus transforms from a down-to-earth common man to an other-worldly Christ whose ideas live on.
In last year’s 14th Teatro de la Luna International Hispanic Theater Festival, we remember Mazzei as an equally sensitive, chameleon-like performer as Lope de Vega, the gallant genius playwright of the Spanish Golden Age in Quien lo probo, lo sabe, also penned by Moro.
The impact of the Mazzei/Moro collaboration in Jesus Christ is intellectually overwhelming. Instead of hard pounding, drum-driven rock music that numbs your soul and alters your heart rhythms, such as in the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar, Mazzei talks through our eyes into our souls. Sometimes Mazzei speaks directly from the apron; sometimes mingling with the audience in friendly communion.
For me, the most memorable, reassuring poetic line in Jesus Christ/Jesucristo comes in the lyrically mind-grabbing, evocative beginning, that starts with nothing, an existential minimalist setting. In pitch-dark blackout, Jesus tells us enigmatically, “Nothing was dark because there was nothing.” No need for more than Mariano Mazzei and Moro’s well-paced, scholarly script based on the Bible. All that’s needed for the plunge into a thought-provoking, spiritually-satisfying evening of theater.
The setting illustrates the power of Moro’s text. Lights come up on Mazzei, dressed in flesh-tinted tunic, roped at the waist with white cord. Jesus is at his work table as a carpenter. He is preparing the cross, smoothing it down with a carpenter’s plane. Sawdust is cluttered on the floor. Planks of wood are piled, as if for a bonfire. (Later they serve as the cross beams for the Cross.) Jesus teaches us how to live by telling us inspiring stories, parables and proverbs. He starts with the Old Testament. And we get a flash card history of the ancient world.
One element to like is how Moro bases his richly-layered script on the importance of Biblical history. If we don’t remember past mistakes and bear responsibility, we risk repeating them. For example, Mazzei as Jesus, with deflationary humor and Moro’s simplified text takes us through deeply embedded moral rules, from Genesis to Judges, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, to the Sermon of the Mount and the Beatitudes in the New Testament. Jesus, for instance, has a sense of ironic humor that makes Moses’ Ten Commandments disarming. “Do not seek adultery,” Jesus counsels. “To illustrate that would be a never-ending tale.”
The story continues in the context of Biblical history from the Old Testament. Instead of pulling the Abraham and Isaac story from the Old Testament, and the blood-of-the-lamb in the thicket, to foreshadow Jesus’ dying on the Cross, Moro chose the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter. Not well known, the story ambushes us with fresh material. (Based on audience members I talked to, inserted program notes would definitely help.)
But there’s enough in Moro’s text to lend relevance. Mazzei as Jesus, tells us the story (Judges 11:29-33) of the Hebrew warrior, Jephthah, who sacrifices his only daughter. To remove the stain from his name, Jephthah, the son of a prostitute, makes a foolish promise by living up to his name, which loosely translated, means: “he opens his mouth without thinking.” Later Jephthah must have wished he had kept it shut. If God makes him and the Israelites victorious in battle, Jephthah promises he will sacrifice the first thing he sees upon return. Jephthah wins the battle, but loses his daughter, his most precious, beloved “thing,” who rushes out to meet him. What is curious is that it is his daughter who sounds like the judge delivering her own death sentence. “You have seen me, father, and now you must keep your promise.” It’s a story about faith and obedience. And it helps us understand why Jesus accepts his destiny.
Sacrifice is an “in” thing to do among the ancient Old Testament tribes, to spread the word and gain immortality. It illustrates the power of the martyr, who becomes immortal after death. How does Moro stage it? Mazzei as Jesus, like a judge rendering a verdict, bangs down a large wooden mallet on his work table. “What kind of people are these, who wash the wrath of their gods with the cries of the dead girls?” Jesus intones, like an indictment of the macho-dominant culture of the Old Testament and readies us for Jesus, the liberating Messiah.
Mary, the Mother of Jesus, is given a glowing portrait, as if to balance the macho violence to women. Mothers don’t want their children to suffer. A touching, universal, motherly statement is repeated like a refrain: “My son, I want nothing to happen to you,” Mary is reported saying by Jesus. Of course, ironically everything in the world happens to him. Everyone wants to be saved and projects their pain onto the Christ. And Jesus, the Messiah, cannot fulfill expectations. Yet, the dramatic irony here is that Jesus after his death, for 2,000 years has been glorified by the greatest artists in Western Civilization.
The role of Jesus impersonated by the charismatic Mariano Mazzei promises to be a high point of Teatro de la Luna’s 15th International Festival of Hispanic Theater. Mazzei makes you believe, without resorting to any specific religion, that the spirit of Jesus is alive in us all. What a turnabout for this acrobatic, young actor, who can transform, with a fall to the ground and change of voice, from a quietly ecstatic Jesus, reciting wise, how-to-live parables, into a groveling, snarling Satan, in the snap of a second. The Forty Days in the Desert Temptation of Christ is a powerful scene, climaxing as an allegory for the spiritual battle between good and evil.
The crucifixion is exalting in its understatement. The quietness reminded me of Pasolini’s memorable, tremendously moving 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew, that is also minimalist and anticlimactic. You suddenly became aware of the insignificance of the individual who is suffering horrifically, cruel punishment for defying authority by going up against the established power.
In spanish. Marcela Ferlito provides simultaneous English translation. Kudos to the George Mason University Advanced Spanish students and Professor Rei Barroa, for their English translation of the Spanish text.
Jesucristo (Jesus Christ)
Written and directed by Mariano Moro
Interpreted by Mariano Mazzei
U.S. Premiere from Argentina for Teatro de la Luna’s 15th International Festival
of Hispanic Theater
Suitable for ages 13 and up
Produced by Compania Los De Verso de Argentina
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
Running Time: About one hour. No intermission. .
What’s ahead at the Teatro de la Luna International Hispanic Theatre Festival to fulfill their theme of the year 2012, A Full Moon of Theater.
Letters from the Swallows (Cartas de las Golondrinas), from Spain’s Compania Escena Mirinaque; October 25, 26, 8 p.m. and Oct. 27, 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.
Fragrances from the Past (Aguita de Viejas), from Ecuador’s Zero No Zero Theatro; Nov. 1, 2, 8 p.m.; Nov. 3, 3 p.m.. & 8 p.m..
I Call Her Rusita Rojas (Yo La Llamo Rusita Rojas), an adaptation of Charles Perrault’s classic Little Red Hood, from Teatro Doble, in Miami, Florida, U.S.A.; Nov. 3, 11:30 a.m..
Killing Words, (Palabras Encadenadas), from Venezuela’s I.E.Producciones C.A.; Nov. 8, 9, 8 p.m.; Nov. 10, 3 p.m.. & 8 p.m..
First Time Mother (Madre Primeriza), from Argentina’s Gazpatxo Producciones;Nov. 15, 16, 8 p.m..; Nov. 17, 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.