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The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens & Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord – Theatre Review; Arizona Theatre Company at Herberger Center

Discord poster

For some, the setting may seem familiar; bland walls in a room that appears to exist in its own space and time.  Sparse furniture – here it’s a table with a singular drawer and three chairs – and no way out.

It might be Hell’s waiting room.  It could be Hell itself.  It all depends on the conclusions the three characters will draw and whether the door that opened to let them in will ever let them out again.  But unlike Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 No Exit where three unknown damned souls in a similar setting are trapped in the afterlife, forced to converse for eternity, the three characters in Scott Carter’s comical The Gospel According To Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, as currently presented at the Herberger Theater Center by Arizona Theatre Company, are well-known figures of our history, and there’s every reason to believe that the door that let them in might eventually let them out again.  At least, that’s the hope.

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Told in chapters with projected titles that act as brief scene changes, as in I: Don’t Close The Door, or III: Dead As Door Nails, and with a fast-paced running time of just 90 minutes without intermission, Discord takes Sartre’s interesting setting with some differences and brings together three men from different historical times, each with very different backgrounds, and forces them to confront each other, and themselves, while imprisoned.

The first to arrive is Thomas Jefferson (Larry Cedar) which makes sense considering he would have been the first in history to pass away.  Upon discovering that the door that let him in won’t let him out, Jefferson, while cheerfully whistling, quickly explores his mostly bare surroundings until the door opens again and in comes the colorfully, ostentatiously dressed Charles Dickens (Mark Gagliardi) declaring, “Clearly, I am in the wrong room,” adding, “Hardly a far, far better place than I have known.”

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The third party to suddenly enter is Leo Tolstoy (Armin Shimerman, best known by TV audiences as Quark from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).  Before Jefferson and Dickens can stop Tolstoy from closing the only door, we’re off to II: Three Jonahs where the setup is complete: Three famous names of history are trapped together, not in the belly of a whale, but a room, and there they’ll remain.

Jefferson has the biggest disadvantage.  Because of his place in history he knows nothing of either Dickens or Tolstoy.  “I have eight thousand books,” Jefferson proudly declares.  “And no Dickens?” asks the author, hurt at the thought that there exists someone with no knowledge of his Victorian literary works.  Tolstoy has the best advantage as he’s familiar with both Jefferson’s achievements and an admirer of Dickens, but why the three men are together eludes them; at least, at first.

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Then it comes. The three men, skilled in the literary arts, realize that each wrote their own version of Christ’s story, versions reflecting their own particular beliefs rather than one dictated by others.  “We three are Gospelists,” states Dickens.

Jefferson wrote The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, often referred to as the Jefferson Bible, where the supernatural leanings of miracles were edited out.  “The Virgin Birth is not in The Bible,” he announces, “But in Mother Goose.”

Dickens wrote The Life of Our Lord for his children, a short novel of Jesus and his teachings filtered through Dickens’ personal Victorian beliefs, incorporating the wonder of miracles and eternal life.

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Tolstoy wrote What I Believe, a set of guidelines for pacifism, and later The Kingdom of God Is Within You, a work that spanned thirty years of self-reflection where he writes of nonviolent resistance.  Interestingly, in Discord, his beliefs counter his actions.  When his temper with Dickens surfaces, despite his written works of pacificity, he uses a pen as a weapon – after all, it is mightier than the sword – and angrily stabs the Victorian author.  Dickens, a man who here delights in quoting himself, dramatically clutches his wound and falls to the ground, declaring, “This… is the worst of times.”

Carter’s fun though flawed script sparkles with the kind of intellect and wit of someone who has studied his characters as much as he can.  Jefferson’s practical, realist approach is underlined when he states that, “The Bible is not God.  It’s an anthology written by committee.”   When discussing how bad writers can be good men, Tolstoy uses Anton Chekhov as an example, relating what he whispered to the playwright as he kissed the man goodbye on his death bed.  “‘I hate Shakespeare’s plays, but yours are worse.’”  And when Dickens attempts to calm Tolstoy, he states, “Be good and I might reveal who killed Edwin Drood.”

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Having played these roles on and off since opening at Geffen Playhouse in 2014 – Mark Gagliardi as Dickens joined later – the three actors under the play’s original director Matt August have mastered their characterizations in surprisingly effective ways, particularly the accents.  Gagliardi’s Dickens’ southern English delivery is as flamboyant as his colorful appearance; everything is a theatrical declaration.  Cedar’s Jefferson talks as you would imagine he might; a first generation American of English origin with the slightest hint of Virginia.  And Shimerman’s Tolstoy brims with the voice of a robust Russian without a hint of caricature.

By the play’s conclusion, there’s the troubling feeling that the script was never fully baked; something is missing, though exactly what is difficult to say.  Satre’s No Exit had a fourth character, a Valet or a bellhop who grounded the setting by answering a few questions.  In ATC’s informative playbill, author Carter explains how Shirely Maclaine suggested he should add Sir Isaac Newton as a fourth character to comment and give perspective on the musings of Jefferson, Tolstoy and Dickens.  Like the true identity of Edwin Drood’s murderer in Dickens’ final, unfinished novel, we can only speculate what might have played out, but on reflection, considering how oddly unfulfilling those final moments feel, she’s possibly on to something.

 For more regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the official ATC website.

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