UTC’s ‘Godspell:’ ambitious and intriguing

UTC’s ‘Godspell:’ ambitious and intriguing

November 29, 2018

Why “Godspell?” Of the countless stage plays and musicals available to Brandeis’ Undergraduate Theater Collective (UTC), of all the possible material that would bring out the best in Brandeis performers, why choose a seventies pop-rock re-imagining of the New Testament for this year’s fall production?

I imagine this question must have popped into the mind of director Nate Rtischchev ’21 at some point over the course of production. Rtischchev’s adaptation places the story in territory that should be familiar to most: a high school classroom. The script—essentially a bunch of Jesus’ teachings punctuated by musical numbers—doesn’t do anyone many favors. The production opens with three back-to-back songs, each a quality showcase in its own right. However, the trio never quite makes it clear what’s going on. On the other hand, what’s obvious is that “Godspell” is one of the most ambitious productions I’ve seen grace the SCC stage. The lighting in particular—designed by Jacob Bers ’20—is superb, adding a level of professional gravitas to the proceedings. The set design (by Aislyn Fair ’19 and Jacob Margolis ’21) is high quality, with Rtischechev and his cast using all aspects of the stage to concoct a few genuinely memorable images.

There’s also no doubt that everyone on stage delivers quality and committed performances. For me, Talia Jacobson ’22 and Alina Sipp-Alpers ’21 were the two biggest standouts in an already-stacked cast. The pair were each magnetic whenever the spotlight shifted in their direction. In general, the musical numbers and accompanying choreography are strong; there’s only one number that falls flat (“All for the Best,” a tap dance between Jesus and Judas), and the cast’s charisma carries much of the show. When “Godspell” works, which is usually during the musical numbers, it’s engaging, funny and captivating.

The problem is that the play doesn’t really make sense. Who are these nameless people making up the ensemble, and why are they so invested in Jesus? What’s their relationship to Jesus—is she a teacher or a fellow student? Why does Judas (played by Sipp-Alpers, who may also be playing “John the Baptiste” according to the playbill) betray Jesus at the end? What’s at stake? Perhaps one could argue that a prior knowledge of Christianity is required—an area where this critic (and some of the Brandeis audience, I’d posit) is no expert.

Much of “Godspell” plays out as a series of biblical vignettes updated with “modern” trappings, connected by a loose storyline. Again, I’d place the blame for this structural fallacy on the script, and I don’t know how else this could have been staged. The only possible change the cast and crew could have made would have been to inject a healthy does of irony into proceedings—as the play stands, there’s never the suggestion that Jesus is maybe full of it and Judas is the sympathetic perspective. Wearing a Wonder Woman t-shirt and overalls covered in trendy buttons, this Jesus (as played by Maia Cataldo ’20) is a perfect teacher, a loving and enlightening presence. This adaptation of “Godspell” plays it straight, which means Sipp-Alpers is left to do what she can to humanize an underwritten part.

Leaving “Godspell,” I was hungry to see the next production directed by Rtischechev, just as I’m eager to see any of the cast members on stage again. What I do wonder about is the UTC’s selection process, especially after the debacle around “And Then There Were None” last semester. What could this cast and crew have accomplished with different material? Overall, “Godspell” left me with more questions than answers—but hey, that’s the point of religion, right?

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