(RNS) — The brand new audio drama podcast “Almelem,” set in first-century Palestine, begins with an ideal plan.
A con man, a shrewd businesswoman, a would-be prophet and a real believer workforce as much as save their nation from the Roman Empire.
They collect hundreds of believers and create a seamless marketing campaign technique.
Then Jesus exhibits up and ruins every little thing, leaving the primary characters with no alternative however to invent a brand new faith on the fly.
The ensuing “biblical backstager” could sound like Monty Python’s “Lifetime of Brian,” however in execution it extra resembles New Testomony fan fiction. Partaking, hopeful and sometimes profane, it gently reimagines the best story ever informed.
Damaged into 5 episodes, “Almelem” debuted in late November, with the ultimate episode due out simply earlier than Christmas. It’s primarily based on a 2018 play of the identical identify by New York author Sean Williams. Williams can be a co-founder of the corporate that produces the brand new podcast, Gideon Media, identified principally for its science fiction tales akin to “Steal the Stars” and “Give Me Away.”
Jordana Williams, Sean’s spouse, directs the present, which options their buddy and playwright Mac Rogers as John the Baptist, referred to by a fictional childhood nickname, Ya-Ya.
Sean Williams obtained the thought for the play whereas attending an Easter service at Judson Memorial Church in New York, the place his buddy, the Rev. Micah Bucey, is an affiliate minister. On the service, Bucey informed a narrative that had lengthy circulated on the church about an outdated cross that had been taken down and repurposed right into a Communion desk.
Bucey informed the congregation that the story, although a delusion, was nonetheless true, making a parallel to the demise of Jesus and the empty tomb inspiring early Christians to create a brand new group across the Communion desk.
Impressed by the sermon, Williams, who grew up in a Latter-day Saints household, started to consider how Christianity started.
“Instantly, I obtained the thought of John the Baptist presumably being the messiah,” he mentioned. “As a result of it was a gig they have been in search of somebody to get.”
Although he’s not spiritual, Williams mentioned he has all the time been intrigued by religion and by how the New Testomony made its approach from firsthand accounts to the tales we all know in the present day.
That led him to put in writing the story of a con man named Gestas and his apprentice Almelem, who groups up with energy dealer Mary Magdalene, on the seek for a brand new messiah. At first, they’re principally pushed by their hatred of the Romans or a need for earnings. Alongside the best way, one thing modifications.
A turning level for John the Baptist comes when he encounters the primary character, Almelem, a real believer who desires to be baptized.
Earlier than that second, John is a little bit of a con man, mentioned Jordana Williams. He’s indignant on the Romans and portrays himself as an indignant prophet however doesn’t actually imagine. In admitting he’s making issues up as he goes alongside, John has a little bit of a revelation.
“You nearly see him develop in that second,” the director mentioned. “There’s a better holiness to that honesty and humility than there ever was to the marginally full-of-crap self-aggrandizement.”
Whereas the character of Jesus performs a central position within the plot, he by no means speaks and seems solely as soon as, when he meets John the Baptist. In that second the Baptist turns from a stammering, would-be prophet to true believer.
A promotional piece of artwork for the stage model options the characters re-creating a part of Michelangelo’s Final Supper, with Jesus lacking, together with the road, “You may’t have a King with out Kingmakers.”
There’s one thing common about John the Baptist, mentioned Rogers, a longtime buddy and inventive companion of the Williamses at Gideon. Rogers, who performs the Baptist, mentioned he may relate to the character, a goofy however well-intentioned man who dreamed of being anyone.
“John the Baptist desires so badly to be the person,” he mentioned. “After which the person exhibits up.”
The character of Almelem, who’s nonbinary, is performed by Dani Martineck, who identifies as nonbinary in actual life. Martineck’s grandfather was an Episcopal minister, whereas their dad was raised Southern Baptist.
“I wish to say generally that I used to be raised confused,” Martineck mentioned.
Taking part in Almelem helped Martineck, who now identifies as an atheist, to see religion as extra targeted on relationships amongst folks than on doctrine. Their character Almelem witnesses the hope and the heartache inherent within the Gospel tales and decides not to surrender.
“That seems like an emotional arc that lots of people can join with, by way of one thing crashing and burning and being heartbroken,” Martineck mentioned. “After which what are you going to make of that?”
Maybe the loveliest — and one of many funniest — moments within the podcast comes when Mary, the mom of Jesus, recounts the story of the primary Christmas. Gestas, the con man who’s making an attempt to determine the way to promote this new messiah, just isn’t impressed: “You set the newborn within the manger?” he asks, incredulous.
However Mary wins them over, partly as a result of the retelling of the story is so human. She displays the weariness of a pregnant girl trudging all the best way to Bethlehem, eager to lie down however unable to cease as a result of her household has to complete their journey. She is then greeted with kindness after the start of her son.
Jordana Williams mentioned the audio drama balances “the profane elements of sacredness and the sacred elements of the mundane.”
“When you find yourself reaching for profundity, you’re a little bit filled with it,” she mentioned. “However once you deal with folks with like easy generosity, and love and kindness and honesty, that’s magic.”
The podcast, just like the oldest ending of the New Testomony Gospel of Mark, closes on the empty tomb.
That’s becoming, mentioned Bucey, as a result of it displays the scenario of early Christians. Their chief had been executed by an empire and all their desires have been shattered.
So that they informed a narrative that modified the world, Bucey mentioned. The story of the Christian religion, just like the story of “Almelem,” is queer, he added, in that it steps exterior the established order and imagines one thing higher.
“They took this picket cross — which was the image of execution — and mentioned we’re going to collect round this desk and inform this story.”