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May 13, 2005

Scripture gets Southern-fried in Cotton Patch Gospel

Of all the Hollywood- and Broadway-style renditions of the life of Christ, Harry Chapin's Cotton Patch Gospel, a bluegrass version of the oft-told story, might border on something of which even the most pious Christian would approve: benign, upbeat, light-hearted, accessible. It may not be as friendly toward Southern evangelists as Jerry Falwell might have it, but nevertheless, Cotton Patch Gospel is refreshing and not wholly irreverent.

Given the multitude of modern-day renditions—rock 'n' roll Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, corruptible Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, and reluctant British Jesus in Life of Brian—a new attempt to make the life and teachings of Christ accessible to the critical, secular, and self-absorbed drama hordes doesn't exactly rank among the newest of ideas. A bluegrass gospel tinge might sweeten the deal for the skeptical theater patron, however, as might a somewhat unconventional Biblical setting that makes modern-day Georgia the holy land and Gainesville the Bethlehem of the south.

The piece starts off with an upbeat number whose refrain ends with, "It's a hell of a place to be heaven-sent, it's Gainesville-bound for me." Narrator Timothy Gregory, an aristocratic-looking golden boy—complete with a brown vest, suspenders, and brown tie—immediately takes the stage, and the audience is lead to believe that he'll merely bridge the gap between musical numbers. But his narration constitutes the substance of the show.

As goes the lead role, so goes the performance, generally speaking. And if that lead performance is rotten, "declare it rotten," as Matthew 12:28 tells us to do. "A rotten tree is known by its rotten fruit," apparently. Gregory's performance as narrator, however, could be said to have borne only "good fruit." And what a fortuitous fact that is, given that he takes credit for nearly all the spoken lines in the play. Those lines, though vaguely recognizable, do bear some sort of resemblance to their place of origin. We discover that "man doesn't live by grits alone, but on every word that drips from the lips of God." Additionally, "five bags of Nabiscos and two cans of sardines" prove sufficient to feed the masses gathered at the Sermon on the Mount. And as the Last Supper commences, Jesus tells his disciples, "Ya better bite into this. It's my body." Chalk one up for brevity and simplicity.

Cotton Patch Gospel proceeds in third-person narrative, which means that Gregory's narrator role naturally brings with it copious other roles. Thus, we see him as the Georgia governor on two occasions (once as Herod, once as Pilate), a fire-and-brimstone-preaching John the Baptist, a beleaguered Joseph attempting to control his erratic son, a corner drunk, a secretary, a suave French waiter, a business executive…all interspersed with bluegrass music throughout the narration.

Guitar, banjo, percussion, fiddle, and bass (performed respectively by the Cotton Pickers Band quintet of Michael Mahler, Timothy Ryan Fisher, David Marcotte, Billy Oh, and Paul Wargaski) give a chipper voice to the rural giddy-up. The instrumentalists completed the look with overalls, bushy beards, straw hats, and bandanas. Gregory acts more or less as conductor, while the musicians assume various non-speaking bit roles, including those of random disciples.

Unlike Matthew's version of Christ's life, however, where the disciples unwittingly comply with any and every command, Gregory's "disciples" are stubborn, inertia-plagued misfits who show comical reluctance to take part in any actual dramatic action. This produces multiple comic situations, as we get the impression that this is Gregory's story, and his entourage is simply along for the ride.

That ride's final destination is an Atlanta hoedown, where Jesus foresees his execution—or lynching, as this play would have it—at the Believe in the Bible Society Convention. This makes for an interesting substitution of roles, given that Chapin chose Georgia as his setting. The dearth of crucifixion-happy Jewish masses in the South gives him recourse to an intolerant bunch of another sort: Christian evangelists, such as Reverend Earnest Dirt of Las Vegas, who petition "Governor" Pilate for Jesus's execution.

Although the governor and his political minions are ultimately at odds with Jesus, they only facilitate his death by transporting him from an Atlanta prison to a rural prison. The transport party is accosted by 200 angry Klansmen, who string up the prisoner and unceremoniously end the joyride, but without the gusto that a more devout Christian might allot to the Passion. This brings with it an interestingly ambiguous relationship. Does Chapin imply that the Georgian political apparatus simply makes itself an accessory to murder? Or does he want to tell us that the New Testament Jews have morphed into pillow-case-wearing Klansmen?

This review will reserve judgment. Given the play's inherently apolitical nature, I can only say that the writers have a certain claim to benignity, and really just wanted to create an entertaining piece. Someone has to take the undesirable roles, right?