nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 1, 2007
Phil Hall's new earnest and heartfelt play with music, Matthew Passion, blends the story of the passion of Christ with the events leading up to Matthew Shepard's death on a fencepost outside Laramie, Wyoming. Hall makes an explicit connection between these two narratives, pointing out that both of these young men became martyrs whose deaths brought about important and positive social change. Hall doesn't press the similarity too hard, which is smart, because obviously Jesus has proven enormously more influential than Matthew Shepard. But the idea of the death of a persecuted loner helping others discover (or remember) their compassion and humanity is powerful and valuable, and the genuineness of Hall's belief in the simple lessons of these ugly events helps Matthew Passion achieve a level of eloquence and potency.
But this is not all that Hall sets out to accomplish here, and the other thread interwoven in this complicated plot is perhaps the one that's got the most potential power. The staged passion/Shepard stories are part of a play-within-a-play being presented by a director named Alex Davenport, and in the very first scene of the play proper Alex announces that he's looking for a specific type of actor to fill out his cast. He finds exactly who he's looking for in Jim Keenan, a 40-something gay man who has been HIV+ for a long time and is now on a reckless slide downward trying to deal with his guilt at still being alive while so many of his friends and loved ones have died. Jim's journey through Alex's play—and through a number of not-so-chance encounters in familiar NYC locations—help him find his way out of his personal crisis. In the end, Alex appears to be a sort of angel for Jim (and indeed Alex portrays, in the play-within-the-play, the angel who leads Matthew Shepard into heaven).
It's compelling, but I wished that Hall had fleshed out Jim's story more. We lack insight into his history, for one thing; more problematic is the fact that Jim doesn't actually do anything significant within the passion or Matthew Shepard stories that Alex is directing, which begs the question of exactly why Alex was so urgently looking for him in the first place. I think Matthew Passion would be a lot stronger if a firm connection were made between Jim and the characters he is required to play in Alex's show; parallel tales of redemption would feel strongly resonant.
That said, Matthew Passion's message of love and hope is clear if perhaps somewhat simplistic. Hall blends New Age spiritualism with a very specific gay sensibility (how many plays boast scenes depicting the Last Supper and a night at a gay dance bar, complete with go-go boys? and how many would put Jesus in the dance bar scene?) Hall's score—there are ten musical numbers in this one-act show—reflect that blend, taking in both a very beautiful new setting of the old spiritual "Joshua F'it the Battle of Jericho" and a pulsing club dance number called "You Need a Bitch Slap."
The show has received a tasteful but streamlined mounting, staged by Steve Stringfellow and choreographed by Jacob Brent. The nine-member all-male ensemble is of high quality, with particularly effective work delivered by James Royce Edwards as Jesus, Jimmi Kilduff as Matthew Shepard, and Jay Sullivan as Alex and a variety of other angel-like characters; Sullivan's commitment and conviction are quite admirable. And a "Greek chorus" consisting of Andy Redeker, Chad McCallon, and Jeff Applegate creates some lovely harmonies on several songs.