part of the
Midtown International Theatre Festival
When a play centers on three people gathering in a room to spend over an hour discussing how little they can expect of the future and how little they understand the past, your first instinct may be to turn the other direction. But when the play is Truth, written by Ellis Gaskell and currently appearing at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, and two of the three participants are Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ, you may want to rethink that reaction. It puts a taut and fascinating, if sometimes off-handed, spin on a tale so familiar it often seems to have no additional facets to explore.
In Gaskell’s rendering, and under Catherine Lamm’s smart but understated direction, nothing is — if you’ll pardon the term — sacred. Pilate (Thomas Leverton) is young and impetuous, thrust into the position of prefect of Judea well beyond his desires, and likely beyond his experience as well. His advisor and, one suspects, the true power behind the leadership is Mycinae (David Mead), who’s older, more thoughtful, and less willing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. He sees Jesus (V. Orion Delwaterman) as not just a rabble-rouser, but an existential threat to generations of Roman rule who might ultimately be the solution to their problems rather than the cause.
Something amazing happens when Jesus is brought before Pilate, however: He is revealed as not the ambitious, disorderly man he’s appeared from the outside, but one in search of an all-encompassing solution to the hopelessness he’s seen from both the ruling governmental body and his personal Jewish leadership. His intense desires would seem to make him easy to control, especially when so many facts, both concrete and assumed, seem to be working against him. But in determining where Jesus truly stands, neither Pilate nor Mycinae are preparing him — or are prepared themselves — for what the final decision will mean in practice rather than theory.
If it sounds like I’m hedging around the specific rules of the game they play, guilty as charged. Because of Gaskell’s unwillingness to stick to a single established canonical version of Jesus’s last week, nothing unfolds in quite the way you may be familiar with. But beyond blending the points of view and plot from multiple Gospels, he also integrates heavy injections of Dan Brown–style conspiracy into the very fabric of the work. Not all of these are surprising; we’ve heard about Jesus having been married before, for example. But some are, even if they’re not original inventions — Ellis borrows the centerpiece of his theory from Robert Graves’s 1946 novel, King Jesus — and as such they deserve better than to be spoiled outright here.
Particular story elements are tangential to the greater concern Gaskell addresses, which is balancing our responsibility to both the present time and days yet to come. Pilate and Mycinae grapple with their actions from one standpoint, and Jesus from another, and while they approach their interactions that way, the play remains an engrossing look at the differences in the way great events are written about, interpreted, and even effects. This proves a mature and focused perspective, told in hushed conversations and backroom deals the same way Richard Nelson’s Conversations in Tusculum (the behind-the-scenes rewriting of Julius Caesar) was, though this one places a more searing emphasis on how we escape from words than how we wallow in them.
A delight, too, are the performances, which would never fly in most Biblical dramatizations, but are ideal here. Mead, who exercises precise control over his deeply furrowing forehead, is a looming specter of greasy disapproval, couched in a mild-mannered exterior that makes Mycinae even more terrifying than his harshly hushed voice might suggest. Leverton and Delwaterman play Pilate and Jesus as two halves of the same personality, each manipulated by domineering, unseen forces, which underscores the depth of their relationship and why Pilate takes a liking to his prisoner. The contrast of Pilate, trying to quench his inner fire for the sake of the state, and Jesus, trying (and not always succeeding) to channel his for the greater good of mankind, is a vital element of the play’s success.
What works considerably less well is Gaskell’s uncomfortable reliance on modern vernacular to fill out his writing. Hearing long ruminations about the nature of personal and political responsibility, as well as chilling bargain sessions in which Pilate and Mycinae try to buy Jesus to their side, punctuated by Pilate’s cries of swear words both minor and major makes the dialogue seem square rather than edgy, and dusty rather than biting.
Gaskell didn’t need to rely on such tricks — there’s enough that’s fresh about Truth to survive being told in cleaner and more pedestrian language. If this is a strictly secular retelling of one of Christianity’s foundational chapters, it’s nonetheless one that communicates the same messages of sacrifice, steadfastness, and yes, faith, that have powered the last two thousand years of history, and are on track to do so for many ages yet to come.