One gospel. Three geniuses with differing interpretations. What could possibly go wrong — or write, right?
Their lives touched three centuries, overlapping in succession. Thomas Jefferson lived from 1743 to 1826; Charles Dickens from 1812 to 1870; and Leo Tolstoy from 1828 to 1910.
“Tolstoy saw Dickens perform, but Jefferson has no idea who either of these people are,” said Adam Knight, artistic director at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City.
And yet, all three men find themselves locked together in a room in the afterlife, debating life’s greatest mysteries in “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord.”
The room has no exit, and according to Riverside’s website: “To escape they must ransack the philosophies of their lives and work, searching for a truth that will set them free.”
Knight is directing this thought-provoking comedy by Scott Carter, which premiered in Los Angeles in 2014. As expected from the writer and producer for television’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “Politically Incorrect,” it’s no ordinary comedy.
The Huffington Post declared: “If religion and comedy had a baby, this would be it.”
“It’s definitely a comedy with teeth,” Knight said. “The play starts off so funny and then before you know it, the rug is pulled out from under you.”
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The play already was programmed on Riverside’s 2018-19 season when Knight joined the staff Oct. 1, and he jumped at the opportunity to direct a show that included one of his favorite writers.
“I’m a huge fan of Dickens,” he said, and appreciated the chance to read and learn about Tolstoy. He also knew of the Jefferson Bible, which focuses on the life Jesus lived and what he said, not on his miracles, Knight noted, adding that it’s one of the key texts of the Unitarian church, which he embraced in high school.
“As a young man and as someone who grew up fundamentalist Christian, I found that to be very refreshing and revolutionary,” he said. “And so coming across this play a few decades later, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to reopen up this question in my mind, about why this gospel story is so important, and how the church and different great minds have interpreted it in vastly different ways — and to the extent where people believe so strongly in their interpretation that different interpretations are considered heresy or a way to go to Hell, which is also what this play’s about,” he said.
“These three men who thought they had found THE way, end up in sort of limbo together. They have to figure out why they’re there and collaborate and work out the differences of their texts. ...
“These are writers who had very fervent beliefs that were well known, and were all incredibly famous in their lifetime. This theater asks us to look at them more closely and asks them to look at themselves more closely, and whether their lives lived up to the ideals they espoused,” Knight said.
“I think it’s a comedy for the moment that we’re in.”
Even though Jefferson and Tolstoy died in their early 80s and Dickens at age 58, in the play, they’re meeting up in their 40s. Knight said the play explores themes of “greatness and what that means; what the gospel means to writers and to the now.
“It asks the question, ‘How do we define a life? Is it a life well lived or a life well thought?’ Sometimes there’s a dichotomy between the ideas and ideals and the reality.”
Playwright Carter describes Jefferson as: “A reason-worshipping son of the Enlightenment who was not immune to the prejudices of his day. He was, at once, Sherlock Holmes, Ashley Wilkes and Spock.”
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Of Dickens, Carter wrote: “He was a spurting, spewing volcano, a bursting supernova, a Big Bang, bow-wow man-child who was as eccentric as any of this characters. ... He was, at once, Cyrano de Bergerac, Emile Zola and Oscar Jaffe.”
And he described Tolstoy as: “A complex curmudgeon ... who dreamed of a simple, peaceful world where all would obey him. He was, at once, Marcel Proust, J.D. Salinger and Yosemite Sam.”
From those descriptions, viewers are in for some intellectually stimulating humor and hubris.
“It’s very funny,” Knight said. “The play wants the audience to think. The play wants the audience to ask these questions of themselves, and so a challenge for me is to try to get out of the way sometimes and to make sure that our production is asking the right questions and giving the audience the prodding that they need not only to reevaluate these characters on stage, but also turn the lens back on themselves.”
WHAT: “The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord”
WHERE: Riverside Theatre, 213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City
WHEN: Friday (1/25) to Feb. 10; 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
EXTRAS: Talk-backs moderated by Anna Barker following performances Saturday (1/26) and Feb. 9
l Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org