New Generation Theatrical returns to the Abbey with ‘Jesus: Origins,’ a superhero spoof

It isn’t half as blasphemous as it sounds

New Generation Theatrical returns to the Abbey with ‘Jesus: Origins,’ a superhero spoof
courtesy photo

In recent months, my column has been filled with farewells from Central Florida artists who are fleeing the state, and the news is full of depressing reports of lawmakers' latest moves — often, the reasons behind those artists' departures. This week, we take a break from the doom and gloom to chat with someone who isn't exiting Orlando, but rather doubling down on bringing new theatrical stories to life here year-round.

It's been nearly a year since Live Active Cultures last looked in on playwright/director Michael Knight, whose alcohol-soaked original comedy Gothic Manor was a big hit for producer Aaron Safer's New Generation Theatrical last Halloween. This week, the pair return to the Abbey with Jesus: Origins, a theology-themed superhero spoof that Knight swears isn't half as blasphemous as it sounds.

A native of central Michigan who says he's always been a storyteller, Michael Knight started working summer jobs at Orlando's theme parks in 2008. He says, "I fell in love with Orlando because I noticed that ... it's a huge entertainment hub: full of theater, full of theme parks, full of creative people. We celebrate drag shows, we celebrate people dancing, we celebrate all sorts of different stuff here in Orlando, and it was a place unlike where I grew up. I really wanted to be here: not New York, not L.A. I wanted to be here."

Knight mounted his first original script at the Orlando Fringe over a decade ago, and scored early success with The Fourplay and Anne Frankenstein. That latter, taboo-breaking hit drew Safer to collaborate with him by commissioning a script; the result was Zombie Island, or How to Survive a Wedding With Your Ex, which proved to be the first step in their ongoing partnership. Knight praises Safer as a modern-day businessman who is "really great about being able to fuel the fire and throw logs on it to keep creativity flowing."

Running April 13-23 is the debut of the duo's latest provocative genre-bender, which fills in the New Testament's "lost years" between Jesus's 13th and 30th birthdays with a comic book–style backstory. Somewhat surprisingly, Knight is not rebelling against some fundamentalist upbringing — he's a secular Protestant whose new play was prompted by watching The Star, a largely forgotten animated film about the Nativity. "I was not a very religious person," admits Knight, "and I wanted to write something that spoke to me, but also was able to [comment] on what I see religion doing."

The plot of Jesus: Origins sees Jesus (Josh Melendez) dealing with his helicopter mom, Mary (Hannah Lemasters), and absentee dad (Robie Phillips) while learning to wield his supernatural powers for good. Despite that irreverent-sounding summary, Knight insists the play is not a send-up of religion, adding that he's focus-tested an audio recording of the script on several religious friends and family. "Everyone says this is a great show for people of faith [who] are not afraid, because what it does is it makes Jesus the hero that He is."

As a result, Knight says, "[I] can't imagine that anyone who claims to be a Christian, or claims to have love for Jesus and love for their fellow man, would see the show and think that we've done something to Jesus that is disrespectful." Even so, in his view, Jesus is "not here to make sure that drag queens don't exist; He's not here to keep guns in your hand. He's here to save you, to help you. To offer hope and compassion to people who don't have a lot of money, to people who are hungry, to people who are generally rejected by society. That's what Jesus stands for."

In the current political climate, Knight knows his show could potentially attract protest, but he says he's not afraid of that. "Frankly, we haven't gotten as much as I want [because] anytime controversy surrounds something, people want to know what it's about."

After Jesus: Origins ascends, New Gen has a full season of productions ahead, including Shakespeare's Twelfth Night (June 8-17) at the Orlando Repertory Theatre, and the Broadway musicals Spring Awakening (July 21-22) and Next to Normal (Sept. 21-Oct. 1) at the Abbey. Safer is also continuing his commitment to new works, presenting Joshua Harmon's Significant Other in August and Knight's Gothic Tavern in November. The follow-up to Gothic Manor won't continue its plot or carry over characters, but rather transplant the action to Sleepy Hollow for a drunken dive into the mystery of Washington Irving's Headless Horseman.

"People really loved it," says Knight of their original Gothic show, "and they seem to glom onto the characters. ... People want to come out and have an experience beyond just turning their brain off." Giving Orlando more year-round opportunities for the kind of original experiences that Knight first discovered at Fringe is exactly what he says New Gen is all about.

Finally, even though Knight feels strongly about the stories New Gen is sharing, he tries not take his art too seriously. "Sometimes heavy-handedness can be damaging and can drive people away," Knight observes. "There's heavy everywhere, but if we can also use those voices in a fun way to speak out against what's happening in the world — and specifically what's happening here in Florida — if we can do that with our art, then we can make Orlando a safe haven."

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