Evan Webber’s new play Other Jesus, that has been getting presented nightly at St Matthew’s United Church on St Clair, opens a discursive space that I’ve been contemplating. I’m not entirely sure I’m objective about this, given that I’m projecting meanings onto the play that may not be there. What, I’ve wondered, are the conditions that create a religion and a faith community? And what is the relationship between the pure experience of revelation –the visions of a prophet—and the subsequent stories, the rituals, and the music?
The essence of any proposition is a hypothetical, the creation of a world where we explore the “what if” that goes with certain assumptions. Webber takes us somewhere that’s almost impossible to imagine, a crucible where a religion might be born, through a kind of speculative fiction that one could find in science fiction: except the circumstances have more to do with religion and faith than starships or aliens.
I don’t mean to disparage, when I say that Webber’s work reminds me of some conceptual art I’ve seen & heard of, where the idea is sometimes better in the mind than in its execution. And perhaps the shortcomings are a necessary part of the ideal version that can only exist in our heads. This may be partly because the idea is still unfinished or in need of further revision. I say this because I think there’s more to this than Webber realized, that might yet be brought forth in the next iteration of Other Jesus: if Webber gets the opportunity to revise and then remount the work.
And yet a big part of my experience in this production from Public Recordings, directed by Frank Cox-O’Connell, is its roughness, the miserably incomplete body presented to us: not unlike the experience of faith itself. We’re reaching for shreds and remnants, intimations rather than a concrete and provable fact. Think of Nirvana or Pearl Jam, the way there was a purity to their music precisely because they were rough and unpurified. I think this was the essence of the grunge sound, which was a kind of neo-classical return to first principles, the angry shapeless id that used to rule rock music back in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. I apologize to anyone who thinks of the voices of Eddy Vedder or Kurt Cobain as pretty or refined. What I admire in them is precisely that they did not make a pretty sound, that they were raw and unpasteurized, very direct and emotionally authentic. This is what we get with Other Jesus. The music at the beginning and end and a few times in the middle, is unsophisticated and noisy, a discourse of questions rather than answers, seeking rather than finding. The best things in the play were the unexpected and the ironic, rather than the moments conforming to the genre, such as it was. While we were watching a kind of anti-religious pageant, this was comprised of moments that were both the recognizable and unrecognizable. We were closest to the pure raw essence when we didn’t know what was coming next, when we were forced to lean forward in bafflement.
The word precarity comes to mind, a word usually associated with a precarious existence on the fringes of our economy. It occurs to me that this is the world that Jesus inhabited, among thieves and whores and the sick and the lame, rather than the wealthy property owners and the Pharisees. But the discursive realm too is precarious, balanced on a kind of edge where we don’t know what to expect. Surely this is where it begins, where the visions of the prophets occur, out of hunger or pain, seeking water or healing: and recalling that the word “save” is about healing, or “salving”.
That was the precarious place made–discursively and physically— by Webber and Public Recordings. That we were in a church as we explored a kind of hypothetical gospel of a hypothetical Jesus, only underlined the exploration all the more. As someone observed in the program, St Matthew’s is a church community that is itself being re-negotiated, rethought, and perhaps is also somewhat precarious in its exploration of a new sort of covenant & relationship to its community. I felt too that the neighbourhood—whether you call it “Wychwood” or “Hillcrest”—is being reinvented around us, a series of new chi-chi places to eat and shop. Cox-O’Connell made the witty observation that the regular population going to church is about the same size as those regularly going to plays. Too true! And in both cases there’s an alarming fear that each group is far too grey, although in this case – the edgier theatre—one can rejoice in the youth one sees filling the space.
It was sold out tonight and likely for the rest of the run.
I couldn’t help noticing, too, that for me, the most exciting parts of the performance, like the best parts of any church service, are the music. No sermon ever persuades me nearly so much. Similarly, much as I enjoyed Webber’s ideas, the abstract music and Thom Gill’s song seemed to be the most eloquent moments. But we’d never have been opened to those without the speculative world laid out in Webber’s prose.
Need I add, that this all feels very timely when we’re living in a world that seems on the verge of upheaval, that there’s an existential precarity I wish I could forget, that I escaped for a few moments tonight, until I walked back out the door. As Cox-O-Connell says in his director’s note, “the act of a group of friends putting on a play continues to be a search to believe in something and to belong to something.” The raw fragility of it all can’t be missed.
Is this all there is? Maybe.