Sometimes I think maybe it would be fun to go to an evangelical church service. Not like Billy Graham evangelical or televangelism, more like the fictional evangelical stuff that you see sometimes, like in Blues Brothers where the late James Brown is the preacher, he’s in a room full of people with a band and a choir on a beautiful summer’s day, and everyone is so into the sermon they randomly jump out of their pews to shout, sing, and dance.
The Book of Judith, a play currently being staged in a tent on the CAMH grounds on Queen West in Toronto, tries hard to invoke that setting, but is not really like that sort of revival meeting. In fact, it’s not a show about religion at all; at it’s heart it’s a one-man play about the protagonist’s struggle first to overcome his discomfort and uneasiness upon meeting a quadriplegic woman named Judith Snow, then his struggle to create and perform a play about her, then his struggle to deal with his own complex feelings towards her. But it’s not really a one-man play either, as there’s about 20 people on stage with playwright/actor Michael Rubenfeld throughout, and it’s staged as though Rubenfeld were a pastor preaching the gospel of Judith Snow. He’s backed by a large choir made up primarily of people with varying disabilities singing a musical score written by Andrew Penner of Panic Manual favourites (I love writing that) The Sunparlour Players. If you look closely, you can see Penner in the photo above, sitting in with the choir on this night; he’s the second person visible from the left in the back row.
So, have you got all that? It’s a bit complicated, but it does pay off in a fun, uplifting show.
The story, as Rubenfeld tells it, is that he met Judith Snow when his best friend asked him a very strange question: do you know anyone who would be willing to make love to a quadriplegic woman? He answered the way I think most people would: no, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t do it. Would you?
But Rubenfeld was intrigued enough by the question to meet Judith Snow. By all accounts, Snow is a very impressive person; she was the first person to successfully fight for individualized funding from the Government of Ontario to help her to live the way she wanted, in her own home. But to call her a support system trailblazer for people with disabilities in Ontario seems inadequate. For more than 30 years she’s helped develop programs across North America and in Europe that’ve helped thousands of people with disabilities get jobs, homes, training, and support to help them live their lives the way they want to, without hiding in assisted living homes or being ashamed of who they are. As the play goes on, Rubenfeld preaches more than narrates the plot in twelve parts, starting with the story of meeting Judith and the creation of his first play with her, where she appeared naked on stage to a mix of rave reviews and disgusted reactions. Along the way, his girlfriend and collaborator left him, he met director Sarah Stanley, things very nearly fell apart many times, and he finds himself feeling uplifted, aggravated, inspired, and betrayed by Judith. And while he tells his story, he sings, climbs up on chairs, tells audience members he loves them, and even strips naked at one point.
The course of the plot didn’t quite work for me; despite Rubenfeld’s frequent assertions that meeting Snow changed his life and made him a better, less self-centred person, well, I’m not sure I saw it. At times it veers close to being self-indulgent, but after all, it is a play written and performed by Rubenfeld where he preaches to an audience about how his life was changed by a woman he met and tells the story of how it happened, so maybe that it comes across as only a little self-indulgent is actually an accomplishment. In the hands of a lesser performer, Rubenfeld’s “preaching” might all end up seeming pretty silly. But while you can pick at some of the details of his abilities (for one, his singing voice sounds only good, not great, but that might be partly because of how great the choir sounds), overall he’s a terrific performer and, maybe because he’s also the playwright, he really loses himself in the material.
Rubenfeld’s passionate performance is the biggest reason The Book of Judith works so well, but it’s really the choir, led by Alex Bulmer, that makes it exceptional. Like James Brown’s choir in Blues Brothers, they shouted affirmations when the “preacher” moves them to and enthusiastically sang some great Andrew Penner-penned tunes. Honestly, when I first read the show’s press release, the choir made up of disabled people sounded like a gimmick, but the choir is well-directed by Bulmer and they put in a joyful, exuberant performance.
Unlike James Brown’s congregation in Blues Brothers, no one in the crowd was leaping from their seats to clap along. It’s the kind of show that would be best to see with a raucous, sold-out crowd that the performers can draw energy from, and the audience on a rainy Tuesday night tried wasn’t quite up to the task. If you go, bring some friends to help pack the house.
The Book of Judith runs nightly until Saturday, May 30th at 8 PM, with a Saturday matinee at 2:30 PM and it’s current run ends with an 11 AM performance on May 31st. Click here for box office info.