Did you know that Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy all wrote their own versions of good book? People might not worship the literary giants, but the literary greats might just be bold enough to try their hands in revising the sacred scriptures.
In 2014, a writer for HBO and liberal comic legend Bill Maher, Scott Carter cooked up a brainy romp about legendary figures with the audacity to write their own versions of the Bible. Now, that show has showed up in Cookeville—in the Backstage Series at CPAC, with four more opportunities to catch this stunning run, through this Saturday.
The Bible is a beautiful collection of stories and poems and profound teachings, if at times a confusing and contradictory canon. But for some reason, the stories in our culture that are the most enduring sometimes elicit the craziest of challenges.
“The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” is a hefty title, and certainly, audience members versed in literature, history, and theology will pick up on more of the inside references. But you don’t, for example, need to know the ways in which Carter borrows from Sartre to get most of the heady gags.
Three egomaniac philosophers get locked in a barren cell of eternal conversation—what could go wrong?! With three of Cookeville’s most charismatic male leading men filling the roles, it’s truly a battle of the betters who cannot quite best their Creator at the gates of forever, no matter how hard they try. With Dave Johnson as Jefferson, Matthew Wilson as Dickens, and Patrick Mannle as Tolstoy, the seasoned actors embody their roles as though their salvation were at stake. These thespians are all forces of nature with any text to work with, and with Carter’s “Gospel,” they take us to every forward edge, including the edges of our seats.
Behind the scenes we find another local theater stalwart in director Steve Gwilt. After he suffered some personal setbacks during the days leading up to opening night, assistant director Michael “Birdie” Birdwell stepped up to see the show through to the first curtain. Thanks to Birdie, the production is enhanced by a great playlist that any DJ would envy for its sonic message as added subtext. Actors Wilson and Mannle added their expertise to technical and light design respectively.
Of the three revised “gospels,” Thomas Jefferson’s might be the most famous. But placed in conversation with Dickens and Tolstoy, Jefferson’s version is just one attempt to make sense of how portable certain premises of mystery and love are for a world steeped in misery but perpetually seeking liberty. Prepare to be surprised by the moral and emotional weight of what is still a sometimes serious, sometimes silly, comedic sendup. Your views on the afterlife and the Bible might not bend, but fans of Bill Maher’s late night show will be blown away by these new rules.
“The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord” at CPAC. Remaining shows are August 23, 25, 26, 27 at 7:30 pm. Call 931-528-1313 for tickets.
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