“Godspell,” the musical based primarily on the Gospel of St. Matthew, has its share of spontaneity and improvisation.
But that’s nothing compared with David Javerbaum’s “An Act of God,” a play in which actors are handed scripts ahead of time but don’t know how they’ll be cast or if they’ll be.
The difference is clear to Henry Gottfried, who directed a production of “Godspell” at Highwood Theatre and is one of the potential performers in its production of “An Act of God.”
The play by Javerbaum – Emmy Award-winning former “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” head writer – is based on his critically acclaimed 2011 book “The Last Testament: A Memoir by God.”
The premise is simple. We all know the story of Moses, who broke the first set of Ten Commandments and God obliged him with a second. But what happens if God returns to earth and makes his wishes known by rewriting them?
The Highwood production has a rotating pool of actors, which includes the theater’s staff, students and board members and special guest artists, including Gottfried, who recently returned to the Broadway production of “Waitress” to play the lead for a short stint.
He has also been doing theater education, inspired at least in part by his Highwood involvement.
“An Act of God” is part of an annual Open Source Project at Highwood, which “redefines a traditional night out at the theater,” said artistic director Matthew Nicola. “We take a traditional show and turn in on its head.”
This marks Highwood’s sixth such project.
“An Act of God” premiered on Broadway in 2015 with Jim Parsons as God. Signature Theatre produced the play, as have many theaters across the country. “But it’s never been performed in a format of this kind, grounded in stand-up style and supported by in-the-round staging, complete lighting/sound, sets and costumes.”
There is also heavy audience participation: their votes determine who plays God and his loyal archangels at every performance, each of which has a different cast of three.
There are no formal rehearsals, and, of course, the actors work script in hand.
“It’s a hysterical and very conversational show,” said Nicola. “There are great one-liners and references to current events.”
Busy as he’s been, Gottfried said he “jumped” at the opportunity to pay Highwood another visit.
“Performing a great piece of theater is a double bonus,” he said. “‘An Act of God” is a play I missed during its New York City run a few years ago, but one I had heard a lot of fun things about. And where else, as an actor, will I get to be a part of a fully realized – but completely spontaneous, production for just one day?”
So, Gottfried added, when he says he doesn’t know what to expect from the play, he really means it.
“I plan to read the play in advance, but that’s about all the preparation it seems I can do,” Gottfried said. “The rest will be just the fun of live theater, the thrill of improvisation and the embrace of the unknown. I won’t be even arriving in Silver Spring until the day of the show.”
It’s not every day an actor can be part of a full production, with no rehearsal, Gottfried continued. So how could one say no?
“Whether that spontaneity will be fun or just terrifying remains to be seen, for the audience and me,” he laughed.
“An Act of God” runs for a limited engagement, April 5-28, at Highwood’s downtown Silver Spring home, 914 Silver Spring Avenue. For tickets, visit: www.thehighwoodtheatre.org/tickets. Office number is 301-587-0697.