Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Month: April 2014

Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

Review | The Mysteries, 52 Episodes From the Bible Written by 48 Playwrights | World Premier | Conceived and Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar | Dramaturg Jill Rafson | Featuring The Bats | Flea Theater

The Mysteries is one whopper of a project!

It’s an epic telling of the Old and New Testaments, referring to Medieval and later “mystery plays” of the life of Christ, 52 episodes more or less in sequence divided into three parts:  The Fall, The Sacrifice, The Kingdom.  Written by 48 playwrights, it’s performed by 54 actors who act, sing and

Sarah Keyes of the Angel Chorus. Photo Hunter Canning

Sarah Keyes of the Angel Chorus. Photo Hunter Canning

dance 78 parts or so in 5 ½ hours, all taking place on the relatively small performance space of the Flea, with the audience in touching distance of the actors, and not only that, it includes dinner! .

This is the third immersive play directed by Iskander at The Flea: first was These Seven Sicknesses  by Sean Graney, an interweaving of all seven extant plays of Sophocles (!) and next was Restoration Comedy by Amy Freed.  They feel like a trilogy though the subject matter isn’t continuous, but they all bear Iskander’s mark. The Mysteries is the least coherent of the three and not my favorite, but it’s remarkable for its ambition, it’s engagement with ideas, its remarkable degree of success, and the open arms it gives to the flow of highs and lows of the human condition — all with a focus on joy that comes through somehow even when things are not going well in the human epic.

It begins with a scene in heaven where we meet the lavish Angel Chorus that will be with us for the duration of the play, and witness Lucifer’s expulsion from heaven, something like in Milton’s Paradise Lost.  We encounter right off God, played by Matthew Jeffers:  he’s a fine actor — making expressive use of his face and voice and his whole body like a dancer, helping us see the way he takes things in and how he comes to his decisions.  Beyond that, he represents an original and powerful casting decision since he’s a dwarf — different from most everybody else but not in the way one expects, and raising interesting questions about the view that humans are made in God’s image.  He’s there at the beginning and there at the end — rarely in between, no surprise there:  the play would be less powerful and less coherent without this uniquely envisioned God.

We also meet the rebellious Lucifer in that first scene in heaven, played with dazzling cynicism by Asia Kate Dillon, and at the same time the angel Gabriel, played by Alice Allemano, who, obedient to God, in contrast to Lucifer, struggles valiantly trying to make sense out of God’s commands and following through on them.  These two, Lucifer and Gabriel, played by tall, striking women, fine actresses who resemble one another, hold the vast array together like bookends.

The scenes in the Garden of Eden are delightful, played, appropriately in the nude, by Jaspal Binning as Adam and Alesandra Nahodil as Eve.  Throughout the play, Biblical episodes are interpreted by the many playwrights in non-canonical ways and the first of these is brilliant:  the knowledge the first couple gain through their disobedient eating of the apple is — how to tell a good joke and how to enjoy one!

After a quick flip through a couple of other Old Testament episodes, including a moving dramatization of The Flood with the multitudes choreographed as drowning (I thought of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Flood), it turns out that only a small portion of the play is devoted to the Old Testament, with the emphasis, timewise and in numbers, on episodes from the life of Christ.

Allison Buck as Mary. Photo Hunter Canning

Allison Buck as Mary. Photo Hunter Canning

So, with intermissions that included, first a delicious vegan Mediterranean dinner handed to the audience by charming, talkative cast members, and, after Part II, desert (excellent baklava and tangerines!), the play wends its way through major moments of Christ’s life, from his birth to  the Virgin Mary (multiple and inconsistent unorthodox interpretations provided by several authors) onward.

The miracle of Christ’s resurrection of the dead Lazarus is vivid, scary and funny — the shrouds and semi-corrupted skin of those interred are  represented by wrappings of what appears to be toilet paper, referencing the repellent in a fascinating, appealing and hilarious way.  I felt sorry, though, for those whom Jesus didn’t resurrect, and they didn’t seem happy about it either.

On to the Passion of Christ, from the Entry into Jerusalem through the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, at times with relatively standard action — Peter actually denies Christ — and other times with less familiar takes — Judas betrays Christ because Jesus asked him to do it, Judas being unwilling (though he ends up badly anyway).   The play goes through conniptions assigning blame for Jesus’ death, not wanting to hurt anybody’s feelings, and that matter is left to confusion.

Karsten Otto as Joseph and Colin Waitt as Jesus.  Photo Hunter Canning

Karsten Otto as Joseph and Colin Waitt as Jesus.  Photo Hunter Canning

The Crucifixion is relatively straightforward, with Colin Waitt, who plays Jesus, conveying the human nature of Christ experiencing terror and pain.  And after that on to — according to what is said — Salvation, but it’s hard to see Salvation in what we’ve been witnessing except that the Angel Chorus proclaims it.  Based on what we’d seen, I thought that the play was about to end shortly before when God, absorbed with the problems of his Creation, wonders aloud who is He anyhow to be telling others what to do.

There are repetitions and generally one feels the play needs the kind of overall editorial vision for dramatic unity and intellectual coherence that it would get if it were single-authored.  The discrepancies in religious and philosophical points of view can be seen as expressive of the many ways of looking at the Biblical account of human history, but the narrative line meanders, so that The Mysteries is less compelling than, for instance, the seven plays by Sophocles treated by a single playwright in the equally ambitious These Seven Sicknesses.

In the category of “buyer beware”:  The Bible is run through the hoops of unorthodox and blasphemous interpretations.  Also there’s a lot of complete nudity.  My hunch is that many of the authors scripted nudity in their episodes so nudity loses the weight of meaning it can carry in theater.  It gets a little ho-hum.

In a time of many “90 Minutes And No Intermission” plays, and thanks to the idealism, ambition, talent, volunteerism and boundless youthful energy of The Bats, here’s one that’s big enough and long enough to provides a near total experience — talent, ideas, and joie de vivre. It’s somewhat unruly, and out of kilter in its consideration of the Old and New Testaments, but it’s spectacular, always visually fascinating, often exciting, and often powerful.

 Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

Colin Waitt as Jesus and the cast. Photo Jonathan Hollingsworth

The Mysteries  plays at The Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca district through May 25th, 2014.  EXTENDED with performances through July 14th, 2014.

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Press Release | App Scriptopia Attempts to Revolutionize the Theater Rehearsal Process

Scriptopia has since shut down. Leaving this post up for historical purposes.

Let’s Talk Off-Broadway rarely publishes press releases but the new app, “Scriptopia,” seems unusually intriguing and of potential interest to our readers.

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Review | The Heir Apparent by David Ives | Adapted from Le Légataire Universel by Jean-François Regnard | Directed by John Rando | Classic Stage Company

David Ives does it again — almost.  His earlier adaptation of Moliere’s le Misanthrope (1666), renamed The School for Lies  (reviewed here in 2011) was an orgy of unending laughter.  This adaptation of Regnard’s le Légataire Universel (1708) which he renames The Heir Apparent isn’t as successful although Ives follows his same rules of mod transformation, because Regnard’s play falls short of the brilliance of le Misanthrope.

So what does David Ives “do” with these late sixteenth and early seventeenth century French plays?

He translates them into completely contemporary lingo, without any inhibitions or unnecessary reverence for  “The Past,” unworried about “anachronism,” using contemporary slang and turns of phrase, and in a spectacular rush of imagination invents contemporary in-jokes in place of  the in-jokes of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries that today would seem like out-jokes, or be missed.  He’s tremendously witty!  Meanwhile, he holds to the past in the costumes and, with titillating ambiguity, in the decor, and for the plot maintains the rules, regulations, customs and laws of the 16th and 17th centuries, all of which, coming up against the contemporary language and modern references, create a delicious cognitive dissonance.

Thanks to David Ives, these plays come to us more themselves than they would be in literal word-for-word translations.  They’re as good as they were in their own day which in the case of Moliere means marvelous, less so for Regnard.

Jean-François’ Regnard was a reigning comic playwright of the Comédie-Français after Moliere; this is his best known work.  The situation is that  a rich old man, Geronte, appears to be dying and his poor nephew, Eraste, is angling for his fortune, which will enable him to marry the beautiful Isabelle.  Obstacles arise for Eraste including the varied set of characters seeking the dying man’s fortune who appear and, in some amusing scenes, claim in one preposterous way or another to be long lost relatives.

The biggest obstacle of all is that the tough old geezer, much as he seems on his last legs, simply doesn’t die.  Crispin the servant, facilitator to the core, invents clever schemes to help Eraste whose own inability to do anything for himself makes him a less than sympathetic character as a lover, which I found a weakness in the play.  Who cares if this jerk gets the girl or not?

Much of the early part of the play (at least it seemed to go on a long time) centers around old man Geronte’s problems with his plumbing: there’s lots of tiresome scatological joking and horsing around.  Instead of an amusingly extreme aspect of character (such as one would find in Moliere), we’re stuck with Geronte’s extreme digestive problems, but Paxton Whitehead, abandoning any vestige of narcissism, gives his all to the rather repulsive role and, when called for, produces an impressive of physical transformation.  By the end of the play, the characters’ situations have changed but — in contrast to le Misanthrope — they haven’t learned much.

The most interesting character is Scruple — the short lawyer of briefs — acted by David Pittu who plays it like José Ferrer as Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1952 John Huston film, The Moulin Rouge — on his knees.  He’s also responsible for the most hilarious scene in which the attorney, a true professional, is drawing up his client’s will while oblivious to false identities — always good for laughs, and Pittu’s intelligent but obtuse sober mien adds to the fun.

Carson Elrod is energetic and amusing as Crispin, the man of many devices and “a whole comédie-française in himself.” Suzanne Bertsch is appropriately imperious as Isabelle’s mother.

See The Heir Apparent and you’ll enjoy it, but you don’t “have to see” it the way I felt you “had” to see The School for Lies.  (I saw it twice just so somebody else who’d miss it otherwise could see it once.)

The Heir Apparent plays at Classic Stage Company in New York City’s East Village through May 4th, 2014.

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