Worst Jesus Movie in the History of Cinema

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I'm standing outside Son of Semele Theater waiting for Mike Schlitt's one-man show Jesus Ride to begin.

Suddenly, Mike Schlitt comes out of the theater and gathers the audience by the front door. He tells us he'd like to create a sacred space. He'd like to help us leave this world behind and enter into the theater. He'd like to say a little prayer, and if we know it, we should join in…

You can feel the audience tense up and get a little nervous. After all, it's Sunday and this is a piece called Jesus Ride.

Then in the solemn tone of a minister, Schlitt launches into a rapid deadpan rendition of Abbot & Costello's "Who's on First."

He's barely gotten to second base and the audience has already relaxed. One audience member even utters a relieved "amen."

It's a brilliant prologue that baptizes the audience into the world of the play. Yeah, we're going to be concerned with the gospels but they'll be the gospels of classic film comedy as well as the story of Jesus.

The Jesus Ride of the title is a feature length film on the life of Jesus that was conceived of as a Christian amusement park ride. Imagine "Space Mountain" but with a crucifixion at the end.

Schlitt's play begins 15 years ago with the story of how the script for Jesus Ride landed on his desk at Sony's brand new High Definition Center. The comedic catalyst is that he doesn't have the foggiest idea what his job title, "Post-Production Manager," means but hey, he's a man of the theater he'll just pretend. One more thing, Schlitt's a Jew making a film about Jesus - a non-practicing Jew, in his own words, he's "Jew -ish."

This launches Schlitt into an informal history, with film clips, of the history of the Son of God on the Silver Screen. A survey which leads him to one conclusion: "the guy had father issues."

Schlitt's own dad was a TV writer in Hollywood with credits ranging from Kung Fu to Matlock. The emotional heart of the play are the stories Schlitt tells about his dying father who wants nothing more than to just smoke a cigarette in the hospital.

Sounds like a bumpy, circuitous trip, right? It is - but that's part of the play's accessible charm. Schlitt's Jesus Ride is like a great dinner party story that just happens to have video all cued up.

What holds it all together is Schlitt has some serious theatre chops. He and director Tracey Young, are both Actors' Gang alums and you can feel the absurdist energy of the once vital Gang rear its head throughout the piece. Young gives the piece just enough shape and keeps the tempo brisk enough so we don't get bogged down.

In the end, you realize Schlitt's prayer worked. For 80 minutes you left the world behind and laughed at the absurdity of making what Schlitt, himself, calls the "worst Jesus movie in the history of Cinema."

Jesus Ride plays at Son of Semele in Silver Lake through April 8.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running Time: 80 Minutes, no intermission

Banner image: Mike Schlitt performing in his one-man show, Jesus Ride. Matt McCray