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One From the Sartre

Photo by Dave Lepori

Sight Unseen: Frank Widman (left) and Randall King in "Bariona"

SJ Stage's seasonal offering is a philosophical reading of the nativity story

By Anne Gelhaus

When Jean-Paul Sartre put on a Christmas pageant, it wasn't your typical Sunday-school nativity. While in a Nazi prison camp in 1940, Sartre wrote his first play, Bariona: Son of Thunder, which he and other prisoners in the artists' barracks performed for their fellow inmates on Christmas Eve.

The San Jose Stage Company's production stays true to the play's original prison setting and yet is beautifully designed and staged. Rob Hamilton deserves much of the credit in the former category, not just for his lighting designs but also for his innovative props, all of which could ostensibly be obtained by prisoners. A corrugated metal wall provides thunderous sound effects, while an oil barrel is used in turn as a stool, a pedestal and a drum.

In the latter category, director Kenneth Kelleher has provided the Stage Company with a stellar translation of Sartre's multilayered script. Even on a surface level, the play is an intelligent, insightful retelling of the story of Jesus' birth, in which Sartre espouses self-actualization as the true path to faith.

His title character is a man whose lifetime of hardship has endeared him to suffering, so much so that he'd rather continue down that path than embrace what he considers the false hope created by the arrival of Jesus.

As Bariona, Stage Company artistic director Randall King is all hard edges and gruff tones at first, but he gradually reveals his character's soft, vulnerable underbelly as the show progresses. Bariona is definitely an antihero, but King invests him with enough humanity that the audience can at least understand how he came by a point of view that put him at odds with the masses.

King especially clicks in his role during scenes with Gary Martinez and Frank Widman, who are excellent as, respectively, a Roman census-taker and Balthasar. Sartre buried in his script many comparisons between the Roman Empire and the Nazis, which King and Martinez bring out subtly yet effectively in their exchanges. It's through Balthasar that Sartre wanted to send a message of hope to his fellow prisoners, and Widman conveys this sentiment with a cautious optimism befitting of one of the Three Wise Men.

With its careful balance of Christian doctrine and poetic philosophy, Bariona is ultimately open to myriad interpretations, and the Stage Company wisely avoids trying to tip the scales in favor of just one. Unlike many holiday productions, this play leaves audiences to ponder the meaning of this season of joy.

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From the Dec. 7-14, 1995 issue of Metro

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