Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The basis of Carter's play, as he mentions in the program notes, was formed when he discovered that all three men had created their own abridged versions of the Bible. Thomas Jefferson cut out only the verses he liked from the King James Bible and pasted them into a journal, Charles Dickens condensed the gospels into his own version that he would often recite to his children, and Leo Tolstoy learned both Greek and Hebrew in order to translate his own rendition of the scripture.
Discord puts all three men in a locked room, immediately after their deaths, and turns this version of heaven's waiting room into the location for a triangular duel where the three debate their individual versions of the gospels. They all lived in different centuries, so their meeting at a singular moment in time is at first confusing to them, but what's even a bigger mystery is why they have all been put in this room. Is their mission to unite their versions of the Bible into one unified scripture? Though that would prove extremely difficult, since they can't agree on simple things like the name of the twelfth disciple or larger religious beliefs such as whether or not the resurrection actually happened. Or, are they each on trial for errors of judgement in their pasts and how they actually didn't fully live according to the words of the gospel they so relished? While Carter's ending isn't exactly conclusive, the journey proves, as is asked in the play, that the world clearly is better off for these three men having lived.
The trio of actors who bring these well-known men to life are superb in their portrayals. Larry Cedar evokes a regal, gentlemanly tone as Thomas Jefferson, who often serves as the mediator for the clashes between the other two men. Mark Gagliardi is overly dramatic, animated, and constantly moving as the humorous, larger than life Dickens while, as a nice counterpoint, Armin Shimerman adds a rough, gruff, and grounded sensibility as the strong and firm Tolstoy. All three play off each other exceptionally well and elevate the wordy play into one that is extremely easy to follow even if you know little about these three men.
Director Matt August plays up the humorous moments but is also exceptionally effective in his focus as the play takes a more serious tone in its final scenes. As each man sits in front of a large mirror that reflects an image of his younger self, the three men must face the errors of the past head on. Most effective of these moments is when Cedar as Jefferson, who is never at a loss for words, especially when, for example, he says he prefers morals to mysteries when speaking about the parts of the bible he doesn't exactly believe in, finds himself speechless when he is told about the impact of the Civil War and how his decision to keep his slaves might have played into it. It is a moment that makes you stop and reflect on decisions you've made in your own past and how they may negatively impact others in the future.
Takeshi Kata's simplistic scenic design of large white walls works well to allow Elias Teeter's imaginative projections and Luke Moyer's vibrant lighting to transform the space and play off the changing moods and tones of the play. Ann Closs-Farley's period perfect costumes pop, especially her colorful and outlandish designs for Dickens.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord is not only a hilarious and brainy battle of wits but also an interesting expose into the past and an examination of what happens when we are faced to repeat it. Scott Carter has crafted a play that is full of extremely witty interactions between these three men and rich in substance, and ATC's production is as rewarding as the play, with an exceptional cast, confident direction, and vivid and clever creative elements.
The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord at Arizona Theatre Company runs through May 29th, 2016, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe Street in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at www.arizonatheatre.org or by calling (602) 256 6995.
Matt August: Director
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.