FRENCH actor and director Robert Hossein created "Jesus Was His Name" to convey the Gospel's message of hope to men and women in this turbulent last decade of the 20th century. His goal, he has said, is to share with audiences - mass audiences filling huge arenas usually reserved for sports events and rock concerts - the depth of faith he felt as a child gazing at the sacred icons of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Using the technological wizardry available to modern producers of film and theater, he has succeeded, remarkably, in bringing those images of medieval Christianity to life. People who may never spend much time in museums looking at the work of Renaissance masters, or in churches peering at icons, will get a taste of that religious and artistic vision as Mr. Hossein's creation tours the United States following its opening last week at the Centrum in Worcester. Large-scale spectacle
But it's a question whether the message Hossein is striving for will get through. It's possible that the sheer spectacle of the show will overwhelm all else, producing just another technology-induced thrill for people who have come to expect this from anything appearing on a big screen. "Big" isn't adequate to describe the scale of the show. The screen is 80 feet wide, compared with the 30 feet common in most movie theaters, and the images are sharp. The Dolby soundtrack shook the chairs bolted to the Ce ntrum's concrete floor. Thundering music - and recorded thunder - accompany the scenes at Golgotha and Lazarus's emergence from the tomb.
Filmed scenes blend into live acting on a stage that extends in front of the screen. The contours of the stage match the rocky, cavernous set that fills the screen. There's an unrelenting starkness to Hossein's vision of the Biblical landscape. Even Jesus' Sermon on the Mount is delivered from a craggy height under a reddish, violently cloudy sky - a far cry from the gentle slopes of Galilee.
The drama, gravity, sound, and spectacle nearly overwhelm the words - which are delivered in deep, narrative tones through the soundtrack, not spoken by the actors. The English narrative is a translation from the French script developed by Hossein and writer Alain Decaux. The words are modern in diction but true to the New Testment text, though some passages, such as the Lord's Prayer, are trimmed to the barest essentials.
The costuming is often elaborate. The figures of Jewish and Roman authority are done up with headdresses, flowing robes, and scarlet livery. They are symbols of worldly power, which any painter of sacred art might have chosen. The ecclesiastical judges that condemn Jesus have skull-like stone faces, a touch of the macabre that is perhaps another instance of the show's creators overreaching a bit. The soldiers who seize Jesus appear to be a cross between the black knight and Darth Vader.
There is much here to impress the senses, but not necessarily the heart. The opening and closing scenes depict a ragged homeless man sprawled on a city street as people stride by. The show's Biblical themes are supposed to spring from this troubled man's memories of his early religious training. The message: humanity's struggle to recover something critical that it has lost in the destructiveness of present-day life.
Individuals will respond to this show according to their own experiences, their own religious heritage, and perhaps their own emotional needs. Those whose views of Christianity partake little of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic artistic traditions so important to Hossein may be put off by the stylized, almost trancelike portrayal of Jesus by the young French actor Jean Marie Lamour. But Mr. Lamour's face and carriage unquestionably convey the icon-like image sought by Hossein. Reviving debate about historical Jesus
For many people this show could revive the age-old discussion of what the historical Jesus was like. Does the theatrical representation of "miracles" like the feeding of the 5,000 or the healing of the man with the withered hand further mythicize these incidents or revive people's hope in their replication - in some form - today?
There's a heaviness to this show - just as there's a heaviness in medieval religious art. The crucifixion dominates here; the resurrection isn't dealt with. Christ's promise of eternal life is hinted at, however, in the final scene, as the angry, resentful homeless man awakes to the image of Jesus extending his hand and rushes off in pursuit of that vision.
Perhaps some of the people who see "Jesus Was His Name" will pursue their own clearer vision by looking into the Bible itself to get a fuller picture of what Hossein, for all his artistic and technological achievement, can barely sketch in this show.
The show's United States tour is presented by Radio Music Hall Productions. Between April and October it will appear in 29 US cities and in Mexico City.