An exciting piece of multimedia theater with a challenging point of view, “Bigger Than Jesus” could have a big future in alternative venues as long as it sticks strictly to the blue states. This exploration of the nature of Christian worship is bound to offend fundamentalists, but auds of other stripes, including nonbelievers, will find it a fast-paced, thought-provoking ride.
The show marks an interesting collaboration between writer-performer Rick Miller and writer-director Daniel Brooks. Miller is a flamboyant thesp best known for his one-man “Machomer: The Simpsons Do Macbeth,” a virtuoso performance piece in which he reimagined Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy as enacted by the citizens of Springfield.
Brooks is a more cerebral type, known for his work with the likes of Daniel MacIvor.
The union of these two different artists has yielded largely positive results. The show has more depth and intellectual substance than Miller’s earlier efforts, but it has picked up a touch of pedantry that slightly dulls his ecstatic, free-wheeling style.
Title comes from John Lennon’s famous declaration that the Beatles’ popularity had surpassed that of the man from Nazareth. The authors call their piece “a universal multidimensional celebration of spirit.”
It’s performed on a bare stage backed by a projection screen, which vanishes during the climactic scene to become an altar. Miller addresses the audience directly throughout, setting up the concept clearly at the beginning: The show is modeled on the Roman Catholic Mass and attempts to discover why Jesus Christ has such a strong hold on Western civilization to this day.
Miller and Brooks divide the piece into several substantial units. In each of them, Miller plays a different character: a Jewish academic, a revivalist preacher, an obsequious flight attendant and, finally, Jesus himself.
One of the show’s strengths is the way Miller takes each of these portraits right to the edge, making them zestily theatrical, but without ever slipping into caricature.
The best sequence is the Last Supper, which Miller begins by staging with a series of tiny plastic dolls — everyone from Jesus through the Tin Man, Darth Vader and George W. Bush. He then launches into a sharp and accurate parody of “Gethsemane” from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which shows off his excellent singing voice and scores some telling satirical points.
One of the show’s greatest strengths is the use of a live video camera that allows Miller’s facial expressions and Brooks’ clever staging to be seen to best advantage. The camera flies, twists and changes focus to create a series of striking, always apt visual images, sometimes projecting on to the screen, sometimes onto Miller himself.
Miller and Brooks make it clear they don’t believe Jesus Christ was divine, bringing in lots of historical research to support their thesis. At those points, the show trips on its own self-importance but perhaps the co-creators felt such backup was necessary in deflecting the anger of more conventional believers.
Non-Christian viewers may not grasp all the subtleties of the piece’s parallel structure with the Catholic Mass but will still find plenty of philosophical points to chew over, as well as virtuoso performing and staging to enjoy.