“Thank you for joining me on this journey,” Ashley Strand said at the opening of his one-man show of the “Gospel of Mark,” from the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. He stood in the center of a ring of chairs at Ronald Sachs Violins on Castle Street. The chair configuration reminded me of the labyrinth found on the floor of Chartres Cathedral: similar in shape—a quartered circle, in this case with 12 chairs in the inner ring, and two bisecting passages Strand uses for his journeys through the text and geography of the Gospel.
For a little context, KJV was authorized by the Crown in 1604 and completed in 1611. For much of the proceeding century, English-language versions of the Bible were suppressed in England, and indeed at times, possession and distribution of an English translation was a crime punishable by imprisonment and even death. KJV was not the first authorized English Bible, but the scholarship, poetic language and scope of the translation have captured the public imagination for over 400 years and made it a defining piece of literature.
KJV was intended to be read aloud in churches, since literacy was not widespread. Most people experienced it through play-acting or performing storyteller in church. Its poetry is stunning. So it takes a moment for the ear to adjust. Perhaps one of the best compliments I can give Strand as a performer of this material is the audience never has to struggle to reach or understand him. He makes the language so natural and inviting it doesn’t feel like a barrier. Though there are people who will be attracted to this show as a worship experience (much like with “Jesus Christ Superstar”), this is not presented as or intended to be an evangelical experience. Its intention is to dramatize the story of the Gospel, not necessarily to win souls.
Strand does not perform it as exultation, but rather as a fully realized, incredibly powerful and tragic journey. Strand brings to life all the characters who speak and those who are merely discussed. He makes their humanness, accomplishments and failings all very real and believable. The audience experiences a hybrid of storytelling performance that brings together the elements of civilization across 2,000 years. Strand incorporates narration of the Gospel, elements of the 1600s, and what audiences in both the church and the playhouse of the day would experience. He mixes and mingles with modern tropes and techniques to create an incredible thread through Western history and psychology.
Strand is not the first performer called to this material. Sir Alex McCowen is probably most well-known for his one-person show. He began in 1978 and continued to develop the show for the remainder of his performing life. He utilized a table, three chairs and a dinner service, in a proscenium-like setting. It is a very different approach from Strand, who has chosen to put this firmly in the round, and has no props beyond the book itself. One cannot help but compare the two pieces: McCowen comes from a much older school of acting (he launched his career in the late 1940s). There is still a lot of the very stiff, proper, British lecture about his work. Strand, by contrast, is a much more modern and realistic performer, who inhabits the moments of frustration and humanness in each of his characters. He is not so much playing the “types” that McCowen was attracted to, but playing the unfolding drama.
So, as Jesus repeatedly asks the apostles if they are not paying attention when he is speaking about the loaves and fishes, bewilderment and frustration are evident in Strand’s voice. His Salome is surprisingly timid, and his Herod is reminiscent of a civil servant caught at a strip club. When Jesus returns to his childhood home and notes, “A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house,” it was like watching Bette Midler’s scene at the gas station in “The Rose”: You might have a chart-topping album in New York, but back home you are still the loser everybody remembered from high school.
“Gospel of Mark” follows Jesus’ exploits as an adult. We begin with John the Baptist and follow through Jesus’ assembly of the apostles, his ministry, the crucifixion and resurrection. At times it is almost like a travelogue there is so much geography covered. As one friend noted, it is remarkably different from church where one verse might be read aloud and discussed, but the entire story taken as a whole is rare. That is a big part of the show’s mission: to present the story as a whole. It changes the perception of each of the verses and parables. They are not isolated incidents; each piece is from a larger cloth. That cloth is a story that follows an ancient pattern and message rooted deeply in the human psyche. If we, the audience, surrender to it, the message and the lesson could change the world.
I have been present for several significant moments in the development of Alchemical Theatre’s “Gospel of Mark.” When Strand first began working with the text, it was at a lectern with the book open in front of him. That was a very different performance, and though the text benefited greatly from the power and majesty of Strand’s remarkable voice, this show is much more intimate and memorable. He is such a physical performer, to keep that aspect bundled behind a lectern is a disservice to his gifts. He really works the setting in the round—and there are no bad seats—but I would say, if you sit farthest from the door facing Castle Street, there are a couple of key moments folks will be perfectly positioned for.
A one-person show by definition is a bit of an endurance marathon for the performer to keep the audience’s attention, but this audience was leaning forward on tender hooks, following Strand’s every word and motion. Keeping their attention wasn’t an issue; getting them to leave at the end of the night was more of a challenge. Yes, Strand resorted to the text on a couple of occasions to get his bearings (it is amazing he didn’t hold the book in his hand the whole time; I think everyone in the room sort of expected him to). He truly inhabited every moment, even those that required some help from his 12 Apostles and his personal Mary (who had his back with the text). If anything, those humanizing moments made him more approachable and less separate from the audience’s experience. It feels like using the lectern was a gestation phase, and what I saw last week was the birthing of this work that like McCowen before him, Strand will probably spend many years refining.
Honestly, when he came to the last line and led the audience in chorus of “amen,” it was not that far off from the last line of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” with Richmond ending the show with a pronouncement of “amen!” It was powerful and beautiful to share what he had clearly led us toward all evening long. His work and the audience’s participation felt like great investment of energy and attention, sealed and then released into the world again.
For a truly powerful evening that will challenge the way you perceive a story and text pervasive in our world, Ashley Strand’s one-man “Gospel of Mark” is a must-see.