Friday, April 13, 2018

“All Heaven Broke Loose” Breaks Loose!

“All Heaven Broke Loose” by Still Small Theatre Troupe ( ) is an ambitious tour de force that explodes with intense power as it depicts the last hours of Christ’s ministry from the betrayal and arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane through the resurrection and on to the day of Pentecost that birthed the Christian church. Written by founder, playwright, actress—in short, all around creative go-to—Jasmine Myers, Still Small actually fields ten actors playing multiple roles, so the name might seem like a misnomer, but it alludes not solely to the size of the troupe, but as well to the still small voice of God after the tumultuous natural spectacle Elijah encountered on Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19). As this theatre troupe’s goal is to share the truth through quality dramatic performances, its voice grows louder with every play it creates and presents. “The Diary of Perpetua” and “How I Met Our Father” are in repertory, and “All Heaven Broke Loose” promises to become a major contribution to current drama and may find itself a fan favorite. A fully staged version is forthcoming.
Assiduously researched and compellingly performed, “All Heaven Broke Loose” breaks open new perspectives on traditional puzzles readers encounter when working through the biblical accounts, like why did Jesus give his mother Mary into the care of his young disciple John when she had her own other children to care for her? what was the logical motivation for the betrayal of Jesus by Judas? Why didn’t his disciples search for Jesus when Mary Magdalene reported she had seen him alive? and on and on.
But this play is not a thinly veiled lecture or sermon. It is a fast-paced, suspenseful, booming two and a half hour dramatic epic. Particularly striking is Max Sklar’s Jesus, gasping on the cross and shouting to God. To us veteran Jesus film and drama aficionados, his Jesus is among the most convincing we’ve seen on stage or screen. The dialogue is richly written with memories of Jesus’s kind acts, provocative words, Old Testament prophecies woven in as vignettes in the center of a ruthless spiral toward inevitable destruction that is the passion story. All the actors are well cast with insightful and convincing portrayals in their different parts, under the able direction of Amelia Haas, so singling out one from another is difficult, they were so coordinated and dedicated to their several parts. And what we saw was only the premier staged reading…
Doug MacDougal, who passionately handles Peter, Cleopas, and other characters, explained to us the driving idea that motivates him: “Being in Peter’s skin, I realize I have been here before in his failures, so I am trying to practice the presence of Jesus. I’m trying to live the paradigm shift that happened to the disciples—what changed them.”[1] This perspective is similar to the director of the original silent King of Kings. It melds both an unforgettable portrayal of Jesus by H.B. Warner (e.g., where else can you see Jesus implored by a group of children to heal a doll’s broken limb as he heals humans and Jesus, a good carpenter, making a makeshift dowel and healing the limb?) and uproarious entertainment (where else can you find Mary Magdalene, who sports a pet leopard, charging onto her opening scene in a chariot pulled by zebras?). In the liner notes to The Criterion Collection presentation of the film, British film studies professor Peter Matthews reports, “The story is often told against [Director] DeMille that he arranged for Mass to be said each morning during the production of King of Kings and obliged cast members to sign an affidavit swearing their Christian rectitude. The point is usually to mock the Pharisaical piety of a slick operator, but in truth, no filmmaker was more sincere.”[2] Cecil B. DeMille himself in an article in the June, 1927 issue of Theatre magazine explained the impact of his insistence on piety on the set, “When we were filming Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer to the assembled multitude on the Temple steps, there followed a moment’s silence, after which the set orchestra played softly the Doxology. Moved…one of the players began to sing the words and immediately the entire group, numbering a thousand, spontaneously chorused the soul-stirring song in unison.”  In fact, he recalled, “even the children on the set for the six or eight months of our picture taking received a religious education.”[3] As a result, Daniel Lord, SJ, the official advisor observed a singular phenomenon during filming, “a strange thing had begun to happen…Christ began to take over. It was a motion picture Christ. It was a Christ of synthetic whiskers and greasepaint. H. B. Warner was a good actor, but by no means a great one. He moved about in his public life, quietly, effectively, miraculously without too much emphasis on the divine nature (this was not eliminated but never underlined), and yet compellingly, Christ was doing to the film what Christ does to all life, once He has been given a chance. He was so dominating that no one else mattered.”[4] One thinks of the advice of James, Jesus’s earthly brother, “Draw near (or approach or come) to God and [God] will draw near to you” (James 4:8a). What James recommends we do is what Cecil B. DeMille and his actors did and what Doug is doing during this time of presentation, since “for me this play is about how to abide, how to remain in the Spirit, a paradigm shift of living in the Spirit.” Doug believes that their “cognitive testimony” will draw their viewers together as a “corporate being.” This is the point they are trying “to get across to the audience, to try to get across to everybody.  We are trying to abide, get into the Spirit, for his peace is always with us.” This is the gift that Christ in his great sacrifice gave us at Easter and Still Small Theatre Troupe continues to announce and demonstrate in Easter’s aftermath. And what is the impact on the Troupe?  Doug reports, “I love it.  It is the ultimate in love stories.” And, indeed, it is the gift most worth receiving.

[1] Interview by telephone, April 11, 2018.
[2] Peter Matthews, “Showman of Piety,” The King of Kings Booklet (The Criterion Collection, 2004), p.9
[3] Cecil B. Demille, “The Screen as a Religious Teacher: How the Much-Discussed Filming of The King of Kings, the New Religious Drama, Was Produced with Reverence and Accuracy,” p. 32
[4] Robert S. Birchard, “The King of Kings,” p. 18

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