On the tiny porch-like stage of the Boyd Street Theater downtown, the tolling of a bell and a deep, groaning chant immediately established the dark ritualism of Open Gate Theatre's ambitious and compelling "Petros."
Created and performed by drummer Alex Cline, trombonists Bruce Fowler and John Rapson, tuba player Bill Roper and dancer-flutist-vocalist Will Salmon, this 50-minute ceremony probed biblical passages for glimpses of a frightening, unknowable Christian god.
With imaginative resource and mastery of mood, the ensemble expressed a metaphysical concept, such as the revelation of power beyond human comprehension (based on John 21:6-7), through Salmon's weighty, rhythmic pantomime and the musicians' liquid washes of brass and percussion.
Sections conveying a sense of human brutality and helplessness found the musicians producing a virtuosic range of effects--everything from a quasi-Roman military march to a brooding brass-choir--and Salmon tracing a nearly complete arc from perfect control (the efficient death machine, slashing and reeling back, over and over) to nearly total loss of control (a stumbling, careening, off-balance passage broken by painful gasps and cries of "No!").
Only in the concluding section--inspired by Acts 2:17 ("Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy and your young men shall see visions. . . .")--with Salmon dancing in grotesque and increasingly galvanic fervor--did "Petros" offer a hope of intuitive connection to a comfortless, terrifying deity.
And here, too, Salmon finally dropped the florid facial emoting (over-scaled for the intimacy of this space and perhaps overwrought anywhere) that had clashed so baldly with the interior focus and unreleased tensions of a work that at times succeeded in making the presence of God seem as real--and as threatening--as the latest news from Libya or Lebanon.