Bay Area Theater Review: JESUS IN INDIA (Magic Theatre in San Francisco)

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by Tony Frankel on February 13, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area

THE GREATEST STORY NEVER TOLD

18 year-old Jesus of Nazareth has heard some distressing news from his sucky carpenter of a father, so he bails Galilee with his whiny, Girl, Interrupted-like friend, Abigail, who’s, like, way in love with Jesus. They arrive in India where Jesus is ready to party. Like, suck on a hookah. (I’m just sayin’.) He meets major philosophizing dude Gopal, who turns him on to the tenets of Buddhism, along with some real sticky plant life (“Honky, please, I grow this crunk”).

Gopal has started the flyest punk rock band with this dude Sushil, but they don’t have a name…or a set list…or a bass player…or a bass…or a singer. Sushil is ready to blow this place (“Fuckin’ Kratonic theocracy up in here”), so the fools start a band and decide to travel around India. But, omigod –  this is so rad –  after Jesus meets Sushil’s totally hot 15 year-old, mature-beyond-her-years sister Mahari…he, like, totally remembers that he dumped the chick Abigail in the desert days before.

Jesus in India by Lloyd Suh at the Magic Theatre – directed by Daniella Topol – with Damon Daunno - San Francisco Theater Review by Tony FrankelWhile Lloyd Suh’s Jesus in India has some serious narrative problems, it nonetheless has one of the most exciting, entertaining, fresh and unique setups that I have seen from a newly-workshopped play in quite some time. It’s cheeky, whimsical, mischievous, and clever. Most remarkably, it manages to be irreverent towards religion without being offensive or dogmatic.

The Magic Theatre and director Daniella Topol’s inventive staging are to be celebrated, because they have shone the light of a Star of Bethlehem on a play in its nativity. By doing so, it is clear to us (and hopefully to them) exactly what works and what needs to be fixed in order for Suh to flesh out his story. Fortunately, the goings-on are magically delightful and often very funny, even when the play gets off track.

Suh has the slacker vernacular and teen angst down pat as he conjectures on Jesus’ “lost years” before his claim to fame. But his self-centered Jesus (endearing, engaging Damon Daunno) needs to demonstrate early on how he is torn between running away from his destiny, his desire to be a decent guy, and his capitulation to peer pressure.

Jesus in India by Lloyd Suh at the Magic Theatre – directed by Daniella Topol – with Damon Daunno - San Francisco Theater Review by Tony FrankelSome critics and spectators may be harsh because, while Jesus has a startlingly original beginning and an intriguing middle, it has, to be frank, no end at all. Normally, when a premise does not reach its potential, it is one of the most infuriating events in the theater, but Suh simply got lost in the desert of his idea. While he claims that his play is “about transformation and humanity,” Jesus in India is still too much about Jesus, son of God – stoned rocker or not.

For example, Suh has to clarify the relationship with Mahari: after the adolescent girl announces to Jesus that she is carrying his child, she appears to him as his mother Mary. It may seem to Suh that this event triggers Jesus to own up to his responsibilities, but it comes off as oddly oedipal (although the mysticism of the possessed Mahari is fascinating). It is troubling that Jesus decides to walk away from the girl who bears his offspring. Are we to glean that this is how Buddhism affected Jesus’ philosophy before he returns to Galilee? It detracts us from the purpose of the play: it must be about that prickly period when a teenage boy acknowledges that it’s time to stop sucking up bongloads and face his passions and destiny head on, even as he is torn about the mess that he leaves behind. I’m surprised that dramaturg Shirley Fishman didn’t catch this major snag.

As Jesus, the fetching and vulnerable Daunno exudes a magnetic, fresh-faced benevolence, even when his careless actions smack of misogyny. When Jesus picks up a bass for the first time, Daunno executes the most astonishing series of licks. Not only is the moment hysterical, but it showcases Duanno’s vast musical capabilities. The exciting, vulnerable young actor also composed and sings the show’s music – a highlight being a ballad based on “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Jesus in India by Lloyd Suh at the Magic Theatre – directed by Daniella Topol – with Damon Daunno - San Francisco Theater Review by Tony FrankelThe character of Sushil could also use some fleshing-out, but, as caricatures go, Jomar Tagatac perfectly embodies the ultimate in angry punk-rock dissatisfaction, injecting a geniality that rounds out his persona. For my theatergoing companion, Tagatac was the most compelling performer, but his character, like that of his intentionally awful guitar-playing, can be irritatingly one-note.

Bobak Bakhtiari is pure enchantment as the dreadful drummer Gopal, a lost boy looking for his Peter Pan. The amiable pothead is most effective when he suddenly spouts Charlie Brown-esque intellectualisms among the stoner-speak. “Naturally there are residual symptoms of these antediluvian paradigms within the idiosyncratic jurisdictions of disparate and autonomous municipalities” is followed by “Hell yeah, son, puff and pass, don’t let the cherry fall.” Onstage, that is some funny ass shit.

Mahira Kakkar gets to show off in her transformation from googly-eyed adolescent Mahari into the luminescent and disembodied Mary; it’s freaky how her entire demeanor – vocally, physically and spiritually – morphs before our very eyes.

Jesus in India by Lloyd Suh at the Magic Theatre – directed by Daniella Topol – with Damon Daunno - San Francisco Theater Review by Tony FrankelIt’s a shame that Jessica Lynn Carroll’s Abigail takes a long leave of absence once she is rescued from the desert, hallucinating about Galilee and Romans and mayhem. Her vitriolic frustration with Jesus’ dismissive attitude clearly covers up her deep love and ardor for the future Messiah, and she somehow needs to be a bigger part of the story.

It is a testament to the vision of director Topol, director of production Sara Huddleston, and their crackerjack design team that Jesus in India stimulates in its concept even as the storyline fractures. Japhy Weideman must be remembered as one of the most thrilling lighting designers in memory, especially the starry firmament represented by filamental strands of lights.

Michael Locher’s Mad Max, post-apocalyptic set of graffiti, stickers, and a mound of trashed bicycles perfectly represent the desert as a punk rockers’ No Man’s Land. Brandin Barón clothes the cast in appropriate Eugene, Oregon-type kulats, T-shirts, vests, and other alternative-scene outfits. And, come on, whose idea was it to have the camel as an unwieldy bike with the giant head of a dromedary attached to it? Was it prop designer Sarah Bingel? Simply brilliant.

I have a belief that Jesus in India will come into its own, even though the storyline has yet to fully materialize. I am filled with hope, inspiration, elation, and a strange sort of comfort thinking of the play yet to come. I never thought I’d say it, but I have faith in Jesus.

photos by Jennifer Reiley

Jesus in India
Magic Theatre in San Francisco
scheduled to end on February 19
for tickets, visit http://www.magictheatre.org

 

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