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Safricial sons, motel-hopping daughters, and execution-bound criminals, the Good Book has never been as modern as this… or as timid.
Originally written for the stage in 2017, Testament is a reimagining of three beloved biblical stories, set in the modern-day US and coloured with contemporary references (this may be the only time you’ll hear a character from the Bible reference Dolly Parton). Told through a triptych of monologues and duologues, the production injects some modernity into these classic fables, although it’s difficult to understand why; the production never finds its bite.
Take the film’s framing, for example: seemingly, the three stories are being shared as part of a group therapy session. One by one, Isaac, Lot’s daughters, and the Impenitent Thief tell their tales, reflecting on their emotional upheaval in the stunning vestibule of a real New York church and supported by Desireé Rodriguez’s beautiful rendition of gospel numbers … but why? Although visually and aurally remarkable, this presentation does nothing to reinforce the themes or concepts being put forward by the subject matter; it’s as if the production is eschewing hard-hitting discourse and is instead focusing its energy on building a gorgeous facade. Really, this meek approach leaves much to be desired.
Ironically, then, part of the potential charm of Testament is its innately tragic nature — it’s weirdly engrossing to imagine just how dark biblical stories can be when approached with contemporary attitudes and sensibilities. God instructing a man to kill his own son to prove his love? That sounds like schizophrenia. It’s not a saccharine story of dogmatic loyalty, but a Saw-like test of devotion.
Perhaps that’s the wider point being made: how modern Christians’ approach to ‘faith’ has had to evolve with the times, and what was once considered typical now seems outdated and archaic. Of course, many biblical scholars believe that the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) should be interpreted metaphorically, so it’s perhaps facetious of the production to treat tales of murderous fathers and impenitent thieves so earnestly. But that in itself is maybe ironic — is this just Testament throwing some wry and sly shade at all the liturgical literalists out there?
This ambiguity is really the downfall of the production: everything feels so timid. Despite some stellar performances from Doron JéPaul Mitchell and Biko Eisen-Martin, Testament is caught in its own meekness, too reticent to deliver on its ambitious central conceit. How would the continued ‘presence’ of God shake the rise of atheism? How would the tyranny of Old Testament divination stack up against modern values? How does it all relate to the existence of contemporary religious fundamentalism? It’s a thought experiment that refuses to engage in critical thinking; all concept, no catharsis.
Testament is available online until April 24 2021. For more information and tickets visit Via Brooklyn Theatre Co. online.