The Gospel According to Ashley

A heaven-sent one-man show

By Gwenyfar Rohler     Photograph by Mark Steelman

Describing Ashley Strand in print as “a force of nature” is so overdone. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that if you combined Dick Shawn’s talent, Daniel Craig’s sex appeal and Gore Vidal’s intellect, then stirred well, seasoned with Liberace’s flair and brought to the table enflambé — you would come close to the Ashley Strand experience live on stage. In other words, he is a vivacious blend of intellect, professional craft and primal energy that is hard to contain and impossible to ignore.

Wilmington audiences were first introduced to Strand through Alchemical Theatre Company’s 2016 production of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, which was set in contemporary North Carolina. He came as a visiting artist to play Pompey Bum, the tapster turned executioner’s assistant, and two years later bought a house here. This past year he and Christopher Marino, producing artistic director of Alchemical Theatre Company, began developing a one-man show of the Gospel of Mark from the King James Version of the Bible. From visiting artist to homeowner is a bit of leap: “One of the things people [the other actors] kept asking me this spring when I was doing fundraisers for Alchemical was . . . ‘So you moved here to do one show a year?’” But Strand is adamant. “I have been looking for an artistic home for a quarter of a century.” In Wilmington, he has found it.

“When I got the opportunity to work with a world-class Shakespeare director I said, ‘If he wants to keep hiring me I’m going to do whatever it takes to make sure that happens,’” says Strand. “So I’m going to move there. If nothing else happens but I get to do one show a year with him for the next 20 years. That will be 20 more first-rate Shakespeare experiences than I have had in the last 20 years.” For Strand, who received his M.F.A. from the Academy of Classical Acting in Washington, D.C., that is not a flippant statement. “I came here with a crazy dream that I think will come true: that Chris Marino will someday be the artistic director of a major regional, destination Shakespeare theater. It will be a great artistic resource for many, many people. I believe that’s going to happen.” From the outside, at least, there are a few pieces that go into most of the pies that Marino makes. For example, Shakespeare and classical texts interest him — not as relics but as current, vibrant, breathing stories. Rarely have I encountered a director who has an understanding of the design and production side for communicating with the audience as deeply as Marino. His Much Ado About Nothing, set in post–Civil War Wilmington, made that show come alive and achieve a relevance for me that it never had before: not just a romantic comedy but a genuine struggle of family reconciliation and refusal to forgive. Strand’s Benedict was a study in contrasts: the face he showed his cronies, the face he showed his host, the face he showed his enemies, and the face he longed to show Beatrice. As a gentleman of that era he hit the nail on the head.

To hear that Marino is moving toward developing a resident theater company is not a surprise. He seems to relish the performers he has found that connect with him artistically, and they appear repeatedly in his work as their relationship deepens.

“I’ve been calling myself an actor for the better part of a quarter-century; this will be the first time I’ve done four shows in a year since probably 2003,” Strand says. Much like Viola in Twelfth Night, Strand’s time in Wilmington comprises a series of adventures and unexpected opportunities. For example, when Marino was putting together a fundraiser for Alchemical Theatre, he asked Strand to bring a monologue to perform.

“He asks, ‘What monologue are you going to do?’ I’m never going to get to play Hamlet. Olivier played it at 48 — maybe someday I will do old Hamlet. I thought, here’s a role I’ve always wanted to do. Here’s a way I can at least do some of it.” One Rogue and Peasant Slave monologue later, Marino drops a hint in Strand’s ear about performing the Gospel of St. Mark as a one-man show, it would be part of something Marino’s brain had been incubating called “The King James Initiative (KJI).” The King James Version of the Bible (KJV) was begun in 1604 after decades of suppressing an English language Bible. Completed in 1611, it remains a beautiful literary work and a milestone in religious writing. The first printing was a large folio edition intended to be read aloud in church.

“The quality of the poets and the scholars that they brought in produced something that was just beautiful and readable and memorable,” Strand notes.

“The KJV was created to be spoken or read aloud and functions very well this way. It is very exciting to share this text with an audience that may not frequent the theater. KJV has a parallel existence to the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries,” Marino observes. “It could attract a whole new audience to text-based theater, and the language of the King James is gorgeous.” Strand comments that with Mark he has encountered a phenomenon completely alien to him before: the audience sitting with the text open in their laps, following along.

The idea of performing the King James Version, and the Gospel of Mark particularly, is not new. Sir Alec McCowen began performing the Book of Mark in 1978. He eventually took that one-man show to Broadway and even Jimmy Carter’s White House. David Suchet, whose audio recording of the Bible is so well known, also has a one-man reading of the Gospel of St. Mark that he brought to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London in 2017. “In terms of cultural significance the impact on the language was greater than Shakespeare’s because it was the daily book,” Strand observes. “Also in terms of forming national identity. These are all downstream effects of the separation from the Catholic Church. But it was really what gave part of the formation of England’s national identity. The effect on the language was tremendous. So many of our common phrases — in the same way of Shakespeare — come from the King James Version of the Bible.” Sir Alec McCowen concurred when he commented in 1990 to Benedict Nightingale of The New York Times: “That was the time Shakespeare was writing his last great plays, so it’s almost like having a Shakespeare masterpiece to myself. I have the whole thing, I play all the parts. There’s pleasure in that, I can tell you.’’

Matching the right performer to the right material is the essential problem of casting that every director faces. But for Marino, Strand was a natural choice for Mark: “He has the intellect and language sensibility for this kind of text. He is funny, and that is an intuitive part of his work, so it would keep the piece from becoming too overly serious or reverential. The text actually has great humor in it. Comedic actors can be quite compelling in more serious material.”

The venues for performing the Gospel of Mark vary: St. Jude’s Metropolitan Community Church hosted a performance last June. Later in the summer, Strand and the KJI brought the Gospel to Old Books on Front St. Standing in the back I confess to being mesmerized at Strand’s evocative rendition of the Gospel. Unlike McCowan who used a set and props, Strand uses only a music stand and still reads much of Mark from the text. “If you look at it as something that had to be performed, because even when it was written the vast majority of people were illiterate so they only experienced it as heard storytelling — and of course if you’re not bringing it to life — you are not going to hold their attention,” Strand notes. Many of the audience members, including the bookstore staff, commented that it was a vastly different experience than church. To hear not just a verse or two, but rather the entire Gospel as one sustained presentation, is extremely powerful. Strand notes that when he read the piece as a whole with an eye to performance he was struck by how engaging and narrative-driven it is.

“This thing is so playable. It is just plot point to plot point . . . there are a lot of different characters and you have the ability to paint a very vivid picture if you so choose.” He shakes his head. “Then, like any good show, the second act really takes off. You know the first act it’s like ‘this is interesting, I’ve not seen it this way before’. But by the time you get to the second act, it is devastating. You know? And the simplicity of it, is what’s so moving to me.”

Probably because of the religious nature of the text, many people are curious about Strand’s own religious views and how the performances influence or change that. McCowen was brought up in a religious household but as an adult sought the Divine in nature, rather than a building or structured hierarchy. David Suchet’s adult conversion to the Church of England has motivated his Bible recording, and documentaries about St. Paul and St. Peter. Strand’s answers are far from simplistic — and also far from seeking to please his listeners: “Biggest surprise of Mark? The relevance of it. The continuing relevance of it. I haven’t sorted these thoughts out completely yet . . . But the connection between healing and authority. Every time Jesus heals someone in Mark the first thing he does is say: ‘Don’t tell anyone.’ The first time the Pharisees think to destroy him by reporting him to the imperial authorities is when he heals a guy who’s possessed. What is the significance of that?” Physically the man on the couch in front of me is oscillating between an actor with enormous physical performance skills and a very quiet, introspective discussion with himself. He begins quoting, “Beware of the scribes who love to go in long robes . . . .” Strand’s eyes flash, he cocks his head to the side and grins. “Just within the religious context he could be talking about any televangelist now,” he says. “There is something about that Gospel that talks about the tension between personal responsibility and central authority. It is the confusion of what properly belongs to Caesar and what properly belongs to God.” Strand lets out a breath. “In other words, ‘Much authority depends upon the illusion of needing authority.’ Which, in another way of speaking, is a protection racket.”

Strand is an amazing storyteller in his own right. Indeed, conversations with him tend to follow a pattern of him setting up a story, leading you along a path and then surprising you with a punchline that you didn’t expect. If you know that he has worked extensively in stand-up comedy, that gives some context to the pattern. One could list his credits and accomplishments in that arena, which include winning the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition (2009), and leaving his comedic mark on Ireland (including opening for Mick Foley during the 2011 UK and Ireland Tour, in addition to teaching stand-up comedy classes and workshops. But that barely scratches the surface, and there is one thing you realize quickly with Ashley Strand: This man might be funny, but it is because there is so much substance to his world view that he can draw upon.

“The itinerary of our family vacations was based around the great cathedrals of Europe,” he says. “So we went from one great cathedral to another.” He begins recounting from his childhood in Europe, where his father had a diplomatic posting. “To go in to those buildings . . . and the best was when you had been driving through the rain and you come in and you’re inside and your senses get focused. Your senses are diffuse outside . . . but inside . . . there is less light and less sound. There are echoes. You are more aware of yourself, so you are quieter. You have the same amount of senses but fewer inputs . . . and then the clouds break and the sun bursts through these giant stained-glass windows and you feel transcendence. You can’t help it — you get chills.” His voice has taken on a quiet cadence that is almost hypnotic. He pauses and fixes his deep eyes on me for an instant before looking inward again. “Then you imagine the voices . . . the community of people spending their days in the field — having these sort of anonymous existences and they all come together on one day. To raise their voices . . . and harmonizing. The waves resonance . . . The echoes from your body . . . the physical even, of feeling transcendence is easier to understand. I could not have put that into words at 8 or 10 (years old) and getting the sense of this. But you get that hint and you don’t forget it. That place is burned in your memory so indelibly, then you can revisit and put new information into it.”

Strand brings to life generations of artisans toiling to build a cathedral that most of them would never see finished. “The vast majority of the community was on the knife’s edge of survival. When you look around here a lot of people are scraping to get by but does it turn into great community art? Not really, no.”

For Marino, part of the artistic responsibility of a theater company is not just to produce shows. “We want to train the new generation of Shakespeare practitioners with Wilmington as the base of operations. We feel this is a great thing for UNCW, Wilmington and Alchemical.” To that end, Alchemical is focusing on the two summer shows their residential, repertory education program, Make Trouble, will produce in conjunction with Lumina Festival of the Arts: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Timon of Athens. In the fall Marino is feeling drawn to producing one of the tragedies, most likely in a found space (like his Measure for Measure was produced in Sputnik Night Club). In five years he plans for Alchemical to have their own space, “where we can produce and curate other works of art and theater. Wilmington also needs a multi-use art space that has mid-size music venue potential and will be its own scene. As for professional work, we would like to have a multi-show season of various work on offer and to be able to incubate and produce new work.” But like Strand, he sees a destination, regional Shakespeare company as the goal.

“In 10 years Alchemical will be a destination theater and arts space that serves this region and draws audience from all over the state. A company that experiments with theatrical form and innovation.” Always the teacher, he concludes: “We also want to develop a fully staffed education department devoted to working in communities that need artistic outreach.”

The Gospel of Mark is currently booking performances in Florida and North Carolina. The next performance scheduled in Wilmington is at the Apostolic Tabernacle Church, 712 Wellington Ave., on April 27th, 2-4 p.m. (Admission is free but donations are accepted.)

Gwenyfar Rohler spends her days managing her family’s bookstore on Front Street.

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