‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
Through July 2
4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington
‘Ulysses on Bottles’
Through June 11
Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
202-399-7993 ext. 2
Since seeing Signature Theatre’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” last week, I’ve been humming “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” Mary Magdalene’s moving ballad about her complicated relationship with Jesus. Yes, it’s one of the best and most covered songs from the iconic rock opera’s familiar score by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), but it’s Natascia Diaz’s breathtaking rendition at Signature that’s responsible for the current earworm.
Accompanied mostly by two acoustic guitars, she makes the song her own. Diaz is that actor who can both sing and act a song exquisitely. And here she’s absolutely terrific as the prostitute turned apostle whose intense love for her spiritual guru manifests as both a joy and a quiet torture.
When “Jesus Christ Superstar” opened on Broadway in 1971 it was noted for its contemporary take on the Gospels. An account of the last week of Jesus’ life focusing on his tetchy relationship with disciple Judas Iscariot, the sung-through musical ends with the crucifixion. Staged by Joe Calarco, Signature’s production doesn’t have a particularly revolutionary feel, but what the out director conveys so well is the enduringly divisive effect of religion, money and power. He interestingly emphasizes the concept of the Word with all of Jesus’ followers carrying black books, their conduit to a new way of living.
The rock score, played by an off-stage, hard-driving, seven-person band led by musical director William Yanesh, gives the talented ensemble an opportunity to shine with “What’s the Buzz,” “Hosanna” and more. Standout moments include Nicholas Edwards’ very human Jesus grappling with his fate in “Gethsemane” and Awa Sal Secka adding shades of powerful gospel with “Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem.”
Luciana Stecconi’s elegant white cruciform set is beautiful in its simplicity. Images reminiscent of Jerusalem’s Old City architecture, segments of Renaissance art depicting the Last Supper and later contemporary images of all that ails the world today are projected on its bare walls. Further heightening the experience is Jason Lyons’ emotive lighting that’s at once striking yet not showy.
But the usually faultless Frank Labovitz serves up some confusing costume design — garments appear to have been pulled from a grab bag of not-great street clothes, and the result adds little. There are a couple exceptions. Out actor Bobby Smith is handsomely suited up as a smooth Pontius Pilate and Diaz’s Mary makes sense in flattering basic black.
There’s another Holy Land-set work in town. Mosaic Theater Company is kicking off its Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival marking 50 years of the Occupation with Israeli playwright Gilad Evron’s “Ulysses on Bottles.” It’s the account of an Israeli-Arab ex-teacher, nicknamed Ulysses (Michael Kevin Darnall), who attempts to sail into Gaza on a raft made of plastic bottles, bearing with him a cargo of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” He never makes it.
Arrested en route, Ulysses returns to Israel where he must face charges. An Israeli-Jewish lawyer Izakov (Matthew Boston) agrees to take on his case pro bono and from there the men’s two very different worlds intersect. It’s a universal tale told with sympathy and humor. The cast includes out actor Sarah Marshall as an Israeli army secret service agent, Liz Perotti, and Chris Genebach.
Winner of Israel Theater Prize’s Best Original Play in 2012, “Ullyses on Bottles” was inspired by real-life events.