Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The voice of one

Actor Tom Bair’s recitation of the entire Gospel According to St. Mark is not just an astonishing tour de force of memorization, but a riveting journey through a text that seems familiar but sometimes raises more questions than it answers.

Premiering on Oct. 15 at New York’s United Solo TheatreFestival, a ten-week series of solo performances, “St. Mark’s Gospel” runs about two hours and contains all 15,992 words of the King James version. Sold out on Oct. 15, another show was added on Nov. 15.

This initial performance took place in a small, off-Broadway black-box theater. With no scenery except gray walls, the set consisted of a red patio table and two chairs. Bair was seated onstage, occasionally consulting a cell phone.

As the house lights dimmed, Japanese composer Shigemasa Nakano’s ethereal music filled the room; sounds of traffic were also heard and Bair’s cell phone rang. He answered it, then put it away and strode forward to stand at center stage.

Tom Bair in St. Mark's Gospel
Looking directly at the audience, with an open stance, he began with a sense of earnest energy: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” This Gospel gets right into the action, with none of the introductory words of the other three. By the third line, John the Baptist is introduced: “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

It’s easy to listen to Bair’s "voice of one," with its medium weight and legato dynamics. This master actor skillfully maintains the tension of the narrative. One joy of this production is that when the inevitable mind-wandering occurs over the two hours, it doesn’t last long because Bair’s varied line readings, vocal projection and crystal-clear articulation bring the attention back.

Director Kathleen Conry’s blocking also captures our interest, as Bair leans against a wall as a bystander in the temple, or uses the table and chairs – most effectively when he sets a chair at center stage and circles it, mocking the unseen man wearing purple and a crown of thorns.

Bair’s physical grace is most effective -- when the man with the withered hand is healed, Bair’s outstretched hand straightens in a subtle gesture. When he’s speaking as a character, he delicately varies his vocal pitch, so the focus remains on the words. 
People usually encounter the Gospel in bits – the Sunday readings or the Bible study passages – and hearing the text in one sitting identifies recurring themes. This listener wondered why Mark’s Gospel is obsessed with Jesus’ healing miracles and the fact that he often says “tell no man” they occurred, but people spread the news anyway.

Mark is the shortest Gospel of the four and as Bair unfolds the narrative, we realize there’s no Nativity in this Gospel and no Pentecost. No "good Samaritan," no wedding at Cana, no Sermon on the Mount.

We wonder why the writer is so careful with very precise identifications of place – “They came into the land of Gennasaret” … “He arose and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon”? These details and several phrases quoting Jesus in his language, Aramaic, lead some to believe that this was an eyewitness account and the source was St. Peter.

How exciting it is, therefore, to hear this Gospel verbally as if that eyewitness had just touched us on the arm, eager to share his story. In “St. Mark’s Gospel,” Bair uses all of his considerable gifts to create a brilliant theatrical and inspirational experience.

Note: in an interview after the performance, Bair said he used the ancient “loci” (locations) memorization technique, where the speaker imagines walking through a place he knows well and uses its rooms or features as prompts. In Bair’s case, it was the Church of the Transfiguration in New York, also known as the “Little Church Around the Corner” and associated with the theatrical community. 

If a church or organization wants to host a performance of “St. Mark’s Gospel,” Bair may be reached at bairtom@gmail.com. Click here for his website.