by John Harper
Paraphrase – This weekend a friend persuaded me to go along with him to a show in the new black box theatre in the basement of Theatre Cedar Rapids. I knew almost nothing about what I was going to see, as my friend’s primary interest was in checking out the space in which he will be acting next month.
All I knew in advance was that it was a one-actor show titled Witnesses. As a frequent director of one-actor shows myself, I know the challenges of holding the attention of an audience for a sustained period of time. Not to worry, though. The tour de force performance of Jonathan Swenson kept me totally engaged for well over an hour of running time.
The script, by Curt Cloninger, is really a series of eight different stories, each told by a character whose life was changed by his relationship with Jesus. They are alternately funny and sad, angry and amazed.
Swenson turned out to be a master of the gamut of emotions required to convey these stories credibly. The scenes transition flawlessly from one character to the next, underpinned by taped music as the actor makes simple costume changes in view of the audience.
These are not simply re-tellings of familiar gospel stories, but rather, imaginative re-creations, sometimes told from a perspective many years after the incident has occurred. They go in more-or-less chronological order, beginning with very funny and corrupt innkeeper who owns the stable where Jesus was born, and ending with Peter’s relentless attempt to convince Thomas that he has seen the risen Christ.
One of my favorites was a middle-aged tailor, relating how he had been bullied and marginalized as a child in Nazareth for being a sissy and a mama’s boy. Jesus, as a boy, had been his protector in a life-transforming way. Another favorite was a very humorous rendering of Lazarus, who can’t quite believe he’s been raised from the dead.
Throughout the performance, Swenson gives us well-differentiated characters, each with its own distinct energy level. And he manages to make each scene visually engaging as well. Even though the performance run at TCR is at its end, I have a feeling that there will be many more iterations of this production around eastern Iowa in the future. I encourage you not to miss it.
P.S. To make this an even more memorable and well-rounded evening, we were treated before the show to about 30 minutes of wonderful song stylings by Janelle Lauer, brilliantly accompanied by Gerard Estella.
John completed a B.A. degree at Stanford University and an M.B.A. at the University of Iowa. He completed his doctorate in higher education in 1974 and became a member of the UI English faculty in 1976. John first specialized in writing theory and the teaching of writing, and later shifted to American drama as his primary field of teaching and research. He is one of the founders of City Circle Acting Company.