“It’s going to be funny for people who don’t know the Bible, it’ll be hilarious for the people who do know the Bible – there’s so many puns and small references.”
That’s playwright Mark Greene talking about Jesus Master Builder Ltd.: A Divine Comedy, production that, with a staged reading of Mary-Ellen Perley’s Magpies, constitutes this year’s From Cradle to Stage: An Evening of New Work at Walterdale Theatre May 18 – 23.
From Cradle to Stage is Walterdale’s annual event that focuses on developing and showcasing previously unproduced work by local playwrights, with full productions supported by a dramaturg, and a full cast and production team.
Jesus Master Builder Ltd. has been one of Mark’s projects since 2007, going through nine major re-writes and getting development assistance from the Alberta Playwright’s Network (“I’ll never forget the line Trevor Rueger said to me, ‘Great jokes, let’s make this into a play.’… He taught me comic conflict and to make it the tale of a particular person”) and dramaturg Mieko Ouchi as part of From Cradle to Stage (“Mieko has been fantastic with the fine-tuning and developing some side stories. Mieko taught me not to have a single throw-away character.”).
Jesus Master Builder Ltd. draws inspiration from a single line in the Bible that implies that Jesus was a carpenter before he started his holy mission. Mark says, “He began his holy mission at 30, so there’s the forgotten years of Jesus Christ. What was He doing up until the age of 30? What we have is that He was a carpenter and He started His mission at 30… [The play] is the previously untold story of the customers of Christ. Everyone’s heard the story of the followers of Christ, this is the other tale and the premise is that Jesus – absolutely, great son of God, no issues there. Carpenter? Mmm, kind of lousy. He’s of course being pulled in a lot of different directions – He has His holy mission, but He’s trying to live up to the expectations of the family business and do carpentry but He’s really bad at it – He tries, He fails and then He leaves the customers holding the bag when He decides to go off and do His other mission. So the story is actually not the story of Jesus, it’s the story of Jebediah, one of the customers of Christ who chases Him throughout biblical times and tries to get Him to come to Jebediah’s house and fix the cracked steps.”
The inspiration for the story hit Mark in Edmonton’s 2006/2007 housing boom, when builders were doing shoddy jobs on houses and condos and leaving the new homeowners to deal with expensive repairs. Mark says, “I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about there being a lot of crap that was going up and I think I made the comment, ‘What would Jesus do?’ because he was a carpenter and I thought, ‘Well, maybe he would do just as crappy of a job.’ Because he had other things he had to do, much like the contractors in Edmonton.”
Mark says in addition to relating to something Edmonton has recently gone through, one of his goals with Jesus Master Builder Ltd. is also to put religion in perspective, both for himself and audience members. “It ended up being this cathartic moment for me. I come from a very strict religious background where it was not acceptable to make fun or joke about anything biblical. That’s where I came from, and this was kind of a release from that… I think of myself 30 years ago, when I was 10 or 12 years old and back then I would have thought that I would burn in Hell for writing such a thing and now I feel release from that, that I can put religion in perspective and go, ‘You know this is just a joke.’ Jesus, or God, or whoever you believe in will not condemn a person to Hell for making a little joke about Jesus’ lack of carpentry skills… I’ve seen the good and the bad in religion and it seems like religion goes bad when people take it too seriously and cannot just crack a smile at a good pun or a good joke or at a political cartoon, bringing in some recent events with Charlie Hebdo. We need to be putting religion in perspective… I’m not making fun of religion. I’m not laughing at it, I’m laughing with it. I’m trying to preserve the message of the Christian faith, saying Jesus – great son of God – but I’m taking a completely irrelevant aspect of the biblical story being His carpentry sideline, and I’m making fun of that. So, this has been a theatrical experiment to see can you laugh with religion and not laugh at it.”
Mark’s final goal is to humanize Jesus and focus on his human experiences. “I’ve always been taught that Jesus was sent to earth to experience what it’s like to be human. So, if He was actually sent here to experience that, He must have been good at some things, bad at others. If He was just excellent at everything, would He have really experienced what it is to be human? He would have been pulled in every direction… So, He must have disappointed people, and what would that have been like?”
Jesus Master Builder Ltd.: A Divine Comedy is presented in conjunction with a staged reading of Magpies by Mary-Ellen Perley.
Of Magpies, Mary-Ellen says, “It is the story of a family – Arthur is the grandfather who has recently lost his wife to an unfortunate disease. Elizabeth, his daughter, with whom he’s become estranged – they have a very stiff relationship that hadn’t been that way when Esther, his wife, was alive. And then you have Arthur’s granddaughter and Elizabeth’s daughter, Samantha, who is at that cusp age, just turned 18, wants to try her wings, wants to be recognized as an adult and her mother isn’t quite ready for that yet.” The play shows the tension between children and parents in the relationships between Arthur and Elizabeth and Elizabeth and Samantha, with everything coming to a head as Samantha demands to know what’s going on between her mother and grandfather and “Why they can’t act like adults!” according to Mary-Ellen. “It’s about families, and the tension within families and the love and anger and hate that all exists within a family situation. And the hope that a family can communicate – talk it through and come out the other end.”
Magpies examines the change in family dynamics caused by the death of Arthur’s wife, Esther, and what effect it has on those left behind. Drawing heavily on Mary-Ellen’s personal experiences with her own family – both her parents and her nuclear family, the show addresses cross-generational issues that both Millennials (through Samantha) and Generation X/Baby Boomers (through the relationship between Elizabeth and Arthur) will understand.
Mary-Ellen has been working on Magpies for over 10 years, working on it with playwrights like David Belke, Connie Massing, Marty Chan, and Vern Thiessen and Mary-Ellen’s neighbour Tracy Carol, who’s been an unofficial dramaturg. Although the first part of Magpies had a staged reading at Walterdale three years ago, Mary-Ellen says the opportunity to have another staged reading is very important to her as a playwright. “It’s really, really important to hear a playwright’s words spoken by other people. I hear the voices in my head when I’m writing and how I would like to have the line said, but… Actors bring their own perspective and, of course, I have a moment of absolute elation when I hear a line delivered the way I want it delivered and I have a moment of total surprise and awe when it comes out another way and I go, wow, that absolutely works too, I like that… The three actors [in this reading] have done a super job and have been really welcoming and eager to see the next draft.”
From Cradle to Stage runs at Walterdale Theatre May 18 – 23 and features Jesus Master Builder Ltd.: A Divine Comedy and Magpies. Tickets are $12 – $18 through Tix on the Square or at the door (cash only).