When ticketholders show up for the play *mark on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, they’ll walk by fish symbols drawn in chalk on the sidewalk that point toward "the meeting place."
That same type of crude drawing would've led early Christians to an underground safe haven during the reign of Roman Emperor Nero, an infamous ruler who persecuted Christians.
Nearly 2,000 years later, New York City audiences have been meeting—though not underground—to watch the one-man performance of *mark, which follows a contemporary street artist, who, with the aid of chalk, relays stories from the Gospel of Mark.
"Even before [the attendees] get to the theatre, they're a little bit in the world of the play," said Fr. George Drance, SJ, who stars in the play. "In the course of the play, as the Gospel has told, the storyteller—the artist—actually draws a mural on the wall and on the floor of the theatre."
In the first century, the Gospel of Mark was recited to give courage to persecuted Christians. Drance decided to tell the story through the lens of a single storyteller to tie it as closely to the original experience of the Gospel as possible. While the play is recited verbatim from a variety of Bible translations, the music and the set’s graffiti give the play a modern feel.
"Sometimes it's very contemporary, but with a reach back to the sense of epic scale that ancient art has," Drance said. "A lot of the music comes out of the sounds that you might hear in an urban situation since the street artist is coming through this spot in the city to tell the story to others."
The street artist is pursued by Emperor Nero’s forces, and though he knows he could be imprisoned or put to death for telling his story, he tells it any way, Drance explains. Audiences have told Drance that the context is challenging, making them think about how they would react in modern day.
“Are we afraid to really live our beliefs, or how do we embrace the same kind of witness that the early Church did?”
According to Drance, the play urges audiences to think, "Are we afraid to really live our beliefs, or how do we embrace the same kind of witness that the early Church did?"
Along with Drance, director Luann Purcell Jennings and musical director Ryan Cantwell helped bring the Jesuit's concept for *mark to life. Drance and the Magis Theatre Company opened the play on May 29 at La MaMa Experimental Theatre, a venue that encourages and offers free support and space for all artists. *mark will run until June 15, and is the first full production of the Magis Theatre Company's new initiative, The Logos Project—an initiative that "explores the place of performance in all sacred traditions of the world,” Drance said.
For Drance, the experience of performing has enriched his own spirituality.
"It's really been great for me as a priest, a spiritual director, a teacher to have to embody this story, night after night, to go through the entire journey," he said.
And it turns out, the play has helped audience’s faith too.
"People say that in some senses it's like they're hearing the Gospel for the first time," Drance said. "We couldn't ask for better than that."