In the year 2012, the word "religion" and the concepts that follow in a chain reaction of the modern person's mind are complex and plentiful. John Lennon was famously criticized for saying that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, and more recent debates involving David Wojnarowicz's video "A Fire in My Belly," which shows a plastic Jesus being overrun with ants, and the Andres Serrano photograph entitled Piss Christ of a crucifix in a container of urine show that these issues surrounding art and religion are still both controversial and applicable.
Enter Rick Miller... as Jesus. In his one-man show Bigger Than Jesus, Miller uses a combination of technological and narrative devices to provide a fresh take on religion as he takes us through a collage of representations.
As you might imagine from the title, this show is about Jesus. But it is actually about more than one Jesus. The performance unfolds as a series of retellings, filterings and constructions as Miller dons various points of view and frameworks for telling the story of Jesus and his teachings. Miller's ambiguous framing is obvious from the start as he reveals that though the performance will follow the structure of the liturgy, he does not believe that Jesus was the only true son of God.
This duality of belief and skepticism is a constant oscillation in the performance, which serves to challenge the way we perceive the information read in the bible and preached at church. Though the ideas are not necessarily so radical in and of themselves, it is Miller's presentation that makes this show something unique. In an interesting funhouse mirror of the theatricality of Catholic mass, Miller's staging reveals a clear eye for aesthetic sensibility and visual spectacle.
With a camera symbolically framed in a metal triangle, Miller's use of digital technology is especially impressive, as he triangulates himself through its lens. He films himself, ghosting, displacing, and multiplying his presence as the projected picture crackles, changes color, and is distorted. These moments remind us that the medium itself is present and can fail, which is an important aspect of several scenes in Bigger Than Jesus.
The postmodern aesthetic of the piece is its greatest asset; though don't mistake this for trivialization. Miller's reenactment of "The Last Supper," with action figures from franchises like Star Wars and The Simpsons and a musical number sung by a Jesus action figure, is a perfect example of the power of utilizing contemporary references to help tell a story. And Miller is, first and foremost, a storyteller. His chameleon-like body and voice transform throughout the piece and keep you wondering what he's going to do next.
I will say that there were some points where I felt like a certain scene went on for a bit longer than necessary, especially in a few very pregnant pauses (which were clearly for effect, but were unnecessary in my opinion). This is interesting in that this feeling is a clear result of Miller's adeptness at fully integrating his staging into his narrative. In other words, his visuals were telling such a good story, he actually had to speak less of it.
Bigger Than Jesus does not aim to make a skeptic or believer out of you, but what it does do is provide a great deal of information and thought provoking demonstrations. Rick Miller is a great performer, and if you at all interested in seeing a unique look at Jesus and the way he came to have the identity we associate with him today, then go to the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.