Nobody has more issues than a lapsed Catholic. "All of the guilt, with none of the calories," is what one of my friends used to say. And lapsed Catholics lurk everywhere. I myself wanted to be a nun when I was nine years old. Maybe it was the ritual, the easily memorized litanies and the clear-cut rules that appeal to those at that first level of Piaget's stage of moral development. No doubt my lapsed Catholic father was very much relieved when I stopped serving pretend Masses with Necco Wafers and talking about taking the veil.
Rick Miller's one man show Bigger than Jesus -- which plays this weekend at Zellerbach Playhouse as part of Cal Performances' season -- reminded me of the view of religion that comes through childlike -- which is not to say childish -- eyes. I want to say it's a naïve view, but not naïve in an ignorant sense, but rather in an innocent one.
Miller, a one man tour-de-force, gathered kudos for his "MacHomer" a Simpson's-inspired telling of Macbeth, which Berkeley Rep presented earlier in the year. In Bigger Than Jesus though, he delves into the story of the Messiah and the underpinnings of Christianity.
Loosely framed on a Catholic mass, Miller's 75-minute play ranges across space and time, with Miller playing Jesus as, variously, a drawling professor-cum-Borscht Belt comedian, a proselytizing minister, and a hyperactive flight attendant. It's a versatile performance that Miller reels off with deceptive ease, but like a child's game of playing Mass, at the end it left me unmoved and oddly uninterested in asking any of the bigger questions like, Who is this God anyway?
Early on, we find ourselves at the start of Mass. Those with any kind of Catholic background found ourselves murmuring "Thanks be to God," at appropriate moments, without even thinking about it. Someone speaking with priestly intonation in a darkened room and then pausing for our response -- it just seemed natural.
The production itself, designed by Ben Chaisson and Beth Kates and directed by co-writer Daniel Brooks, is superb. A video screen in the back and a smooth white floor that doubles as a white board make a simple set, but Chaisson and Kates meld video and sound together to make the kind of seamless experience that is incredibly difficult to achieve. Live video cameras that feed real-time images merge with pre-recorded tape and live action with a skillfulness that eludes a lot of theater productions these days. It's a clever production, and Miller makes a genial host -- never too pushy with ideas, always inclusive.
Often lurking under the rational skin of a lapsed Catholic is an undercurrent of rage, or at least indignation. But there's no rancor to Miller's performance and his journey plays more like a didactic lecture, rather than any kind of commentary. I wished he had a little more bite. His notes on the portrayal of the historical Jesus, the development of the Christian faith and its place in the world today aren't new, by any means, and it felt as though he were perhaps a little afraid to utilize the fullness of sarcasm that I sensed lurking behind the words.
Still, Miller attacks the stage performance with phenomenal vigor and he can be raucously funny at times. At one point he prowls the house, planting a kiss on the mouth of a surprised man in the front row of the audience. He turns the camera on us and exhorts us to wave our arms ridiculously in the air as if we were at a revival meeting.
"Quick, get your arms up before he comes over here!" my husband hisses at me. "You saw him, he's crazy!"
And a re-enactment of the Last Supper using a five-inch plastic Jesus action figure (I believe I've seen the package and it says that he has "poseable arms and wheels in his base for smooth gliding action") bopping along to a send-up of "Gethsemane" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar" is utterly hilarious.
But Miller can also be touchingly honest and open about his own confusion. Perhaps his best moments are the revealing ones, where we find out little snippets of what he himself believes. But so much of the show is him not being Rick Miller that I began to wonder if he were afraid to directly address his own religious confusion.
In the end, the bigger questions were still there, waiting to be asked.
Cast: Rick Miller
Director: Daniel Brooks
Bigger Than Jesus runs June 20-24, 2006 at the Zellerbach Playhouse, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
Tickets: $30, call 510-642-9988