Scott Guthrie, an Oklahoma City University graduate who has spent the last 12 years working as an actor in New York City, has enjoyed featured roles in theater projects ranging from “The Full Monty” to “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”
But his latest role, that of the Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein's 1971 “Mass,” may be his greatest challenge yet. Subtitled “A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers,” Bernstein's “Mass” has been characterized as a crisis of faith, with the Celebrant's faith constantly being tested by human misery, corruption and the trappings of his own power.
“I've played some roles in my career that I thought would never be harder but the first time I listened to this piece I thought it was impossible,” Guthrie said recently. “Musically, it's all over the map, with a big classical sound in some pieces and weird atonal, blues, pop and rock type sounds in others. The juxtaposition of song styles and what you're singing about kind of blows your mind.”
Those who pursue acting careers typically seek interesting roles that are a good fit for their vocal talents and physical characteristics.
And while every performer has a list of favorite roles he'd like to tackle someday, it's the off-the-beaten-track projects that stretch an actor's capabilities. Such is the part of the Celebrant.
“It's the journey that the Celebrant goes on that reaches out to me the most,” Guthrie said. “This guy keeps being interrupted by people with conflicting thoughts and ideas. His faith is eventually rocked to the core and he realizes he is all alone. The Celebrant also does a lot of observing so there's just as much work for me in moments that I don't sing. As with any honest relationship, it's all about communication.”
One of the work's most intense and grueling passages is titled “Fraction: Things Get Broken.”
As the Mass progresses, the Celebrant hears members of a street choir expressing doubts and suspicions about the necessity of God in their lives. As their questioning intensifies, the Celebrant hurls the sacred bread and the chalice of wine to the floor, which is seen as sacrilege by the other cast members.
“I love a good challenge but the first time I sang through this 14-minute number, I felt like I had gone through the entire show in one song,” Guthrie said. “I can sympathize with these people who question their faith and I can relate to what they're feeling.
“The Celebrant goes through joy, agony and doubt, emotions that turn on a dime. When he destroys the chalice, it's like a mad scene. This man's purpose in life has crumbled. I was exhausted the first time I sang through it. It's important to maintain the physical wherewithal to get through this journey.”
Guthrie said having the opportunity to dig into what he calls “a reactionary piece” has been not only a good exercise in testing the limits of his musicianship, but a musically rich and theatrically satisfying experience that will likely remain a high point in his career.
“I'm very respectful that this piece is out there in the world and that everyday people as well as men of the cloth can relate to it,” Guthrie said. “There are going to be parts that you don't agree with or that speak out against you and your beliefs.
“But as artists, we're supposed to make people think and provoke them. The longer I work on this piece, the vastness of it keeps growing. It's like dropping a coin down a well. I have yet to hear it land.”