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

Tag: Ed Sylvanus Iskandar

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.

Related articles
Watch  out for that that telescope! ...  Allison Buck as Amanda, Seth Moore as Worthy. Photo Aaron Zebrock

Review | Restoration Comedy by Amy Freed | Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar | Featuring The Bats | Flea Theater

Winter doldrums? … Let Restoration Comedy completely restore you!

Magic unfolds in the relatively small performing space of the Flea Theater flanked by a few rows of audience seats.  That central space comes alive with color, wit, music, dance, energy.  In fact the energy spills from the stage throughout the theater — at the entrance actors costumed in the flounce and style of the 17th Century greet you with drinks and mill everywhere to talk with you, get to know you in the way of director Iskandar’s immersive theater — seen last season in the Flea’s masterful production of These Seven Sicknesses.

This ebullient cast, drawn from The Flea’s resident company of young actors, will even tell you — if you ask — that “restoration comedy” refers to the plays produced in England in the late 17th Century, notably rakish in reaction to banning of theaters and anything that smacked of abundant pleasure under the Puritans.  True to its tradition, Restoration Comedy is filled with alliances, dalliances, gender bending, word play innuendo, and a dose of plain old polymorphous sexuality.

Couples entwine, bottoms are bared (this might not be one for the children), the play lets loose.  Snooping through a telescope on her husband making love to another woman, Amanda wonders if this current passion of his is “double jointed.”  But for all its advocacy of anything goes, this is not in your face aggressive like Hair  — there’s a delicacy to it, just as there is to the extraordinarily lovely colors that fill the stage, the creative choreography, and the marvelous music that’s everywhere.   It’s real subject — joy of life .

In keeping with a play that questions whether everyone should be held to marital fidelity or if it’s too much a one-fits-all straightjacket, the plot’s starting point is the marriage of a pure and virtuous woman, Amanda, and John Loveless, a libertine seeker of sexual variety.  Joined in holy matrimony — but can they possibly be right for one another?  The play seeks to find out via a positive maze of ins and outs and wildly funny characters and situations.  To help save his friend’s marriage (and putting aside, of course, the fact that he’s madly in love with her), Loveless’s best friend, Worthy, sets about teaching Amanda the art of sensual variety:  she turns out to be an enthused pupil!

James Fouhey as Loveless and Stephen Stout as Foppington.  Photo Aaron Zebrock

James Fouhey as Loveless and Stephen Stout as Foppington.  Photo Aaron Zebrock

 

So much happens in the play — and in the intermission which is fairly wild with singing by talented cast members, dancing, and drinks and hors d’oeuvres for all — that the play needs strong and individualized performances from the main characters to hold the narrative line.  James Fouhey dominates wonderfully as Loveless — wry, amused, exotic, bemused, leaping across the stage with his long body.  Allison Buck is charming and amusing as Amanda in both her personae — holding firm and giving in as the apt pupil of the amorous Worthy, played with a kind of sophisticated understatement by Seth Moore.  Stephen Stout is a real show stopper as the outrageous alluring sensualist, Foppington.  His accent, sounding the way the old typography looks, is worth seeing the play for in and of itself.  Thank you, Stephen Stout, for so many deep laughs!  But everyone is no less than perfect in their many parts.

In fact everybody who has had anything to do with this play does what he or she does superbly.  There’s an entire troupe of first rate dancers, with fresh and imaginative choreography by Will Taylor — not the kind of group shuffling around the stage that sometimes goes by the name of “choreography.”  In designing the costumes, Loren Shaw found a way to make them both amusing and beautiful:  I understand they’re all hand sewn, one more gauge of the sheer quality that’s sewn into every inch of this production.  I’d like to mention everybody but this is one ambitious project:  I count a cast of 40 (the NY Times critic was impressed recently because Golden Boy on Broadway has a cast of 20).  Hah!  Eat your heart out Broadway:  Off- and Off-off Broadway are where it’s at!

There’s an infectious idealism at the Flea — as if everybody is feeling “isn’t it wonderful what we’re doing!”  And it is.  Why anybody who wants to go to the theater would go to anything but Restoration Comedy is beyond me — unless, of course, you don’t feel like laughing.

Restoration Comedy  plays at The Flea Theater on White Street in NYC’s Tribeca through December 30, 2012.

   Ensemble.  Photo Aaron Zebrock

Ensemble.  Photo Aaron Zebrock

Satomi Blair as Jocasta, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

Review | These Seven Sicknesses by Sean Graney | Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar | Flea Theater | Featuring The Bats

 

Allison Buck as Tekmessa and Grant Harrison as Ajax, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

Allison Buck as Tekmessa and Grant Harrison as Ajax, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

If you’re lucky enough to see These Seven Sicknesses, you’re in for a rich adventure.  It’s like setting sail.  First of all, you’ll walk in to a party — there’s a buzz, the actors, in costume, are there to talk with you, offering to bring you water or wine.  This is transformative, opening you to whatever’s going to happen soon on the stage, that is, the wood floor between the facing banks of the audience.   

The play is an ambitious and exciting weaving together of the seven extant plays of Sophocles.  It follows their basic story lines and generally their emotional arcs while changing some aspects.  To catch any of Sophocles’ words you have to think fast because the language is our current lingo and delivered with today’s expressions and body language, marvelously by a superb group of young actors — the Flea’s Bats.  The stories are tragic, and Graney’s treatment of them is witty and hilarious.  Since it’s a long evening¸dinner is served (by the actors to the audience) after Act I and — if you can believe it –- dessert comes after Act II, which leaves room for delightful conversation among the actors and audience.  Feeling so well taken care of is in itself transformative.  

For those who may know Sophocles’ plays and are interested in the order in which they’re taken up, Act I presents, with these titles, Oedipus [The King], In Trachis, In Colonus.  Act II:  Philoktetes, Ajax.  Act III:  Elektra, Antigone.

The opening act is over-compressed which led me to think These Seven Sicknesses might be superficial but — hold on, it isn’t!  Still, much of Act I is performed with rambunctious speed.   Oedipus acknowledges his guilt fairly early on so Sophocles’ portrait of him as a searcher for truth is lost.  The Oedipus episode slows down, though, for its exciting, theatrical crescendo.  In a scene poignantly played by Satomi Blair, Oedipus’ wife Jocasta, drenched in guilt at the discovery of her polluted marriage with her son, steps into her bath and cuts her wrists, her blood reddening the water (in Sophocles she hangs herself).  In terms of the themes of blood and pollution in the play, as Ms. Blair commented to me in the intermission, this manner of suicide is rich in symbolism.  To see a woman step into a bath on the  plank floor between the facing banks of seats has character of a sacrifice: it”s “not in Sophocles” but it’s filled with suggestive resonance of other sacrifices of women in these plays and at the heart of much Greek drama.

Satomi Blair as Jocasta, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

Satomi Blair as Jocasta, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

 

Seth Moore as Philoktetes and Alex Herrald as Neoptolemus, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

Seth Moore as Philoktetes and Alex Herrald as Neoptolemus, photo Laura June Kirsch, courtesy Flea Theater

Philoktetes, next,  follows most closely Sophocles’ actual and emotional story line, it’s given the time it needs, and is magnificently acted by Seth Moore:  the upshot — a great Philoktetes!  Years ago, as the story goes, the Greeks were headed to fight at Troy but the warrior Philoktetes had a gangrenous, disgusting leg wound, so they abandoned him on a desolate island — “They left cans of food for me but no can opener,” Philoktetes says.  Now, after ten years of fruitless war, the prophetic word is out that the Greeks can’t capture Troy without Philoktetes’ magic bow.  The play begins as Odysseus and Neoptolemus, Achilles’ son, arrive on the island to get it.  They and we meet a Philoktetes in agony, half-crazed with bitterness at the way he has been treated¸ his isolation, and the unrelenting pain of his rotting leg.  With Odysseus and Neoptolemus plotting by fair means and foul to get that bow, the pain of suspicion is added to his anguish.  Philoktetes covers the long stage with his one good leg and a make-shift crutch, his suppurating leg fallen upon, and stomped upon by Odysseus who’ll stop at nothing.  In this episode several nurses, on hand throughout These Seven Sicknesses as a singing Greek chorus … Well, what they do here is an operation, more I will not say, except that it gives Seth Moore the opportunity to add some blood curdling cries of pain to his stunning performance.

Ajax, the story of another unappreciated warrior, omits Sophocles’ rich, long speeches but gives plenty of time to the main dramatic action, choreographed on a grand scale and performed with thrilling power, deft speed and spinning turns by Grant Harrison as Ajax.  The hero whose name is proverbial for great strength is brooding over an unbearable blow to his honor:  since Achilles, the greatest Greek fighter, died, his armor was to be awarded to the next greatest fighter and in a vote the Greeks awarded it — not to Ajax but — to Odysseus.  Ajax is agonizing over the intolerable insult when a squadron of armed men and women enter in a choreographed advance, uttering the low, oddly frightening bah’s of sheep.  Driven by a passion to avenge his honor, and crazed by the disrespect, Ajax enters battle against what he thinks are his enemies and slaughters them all, only to find out that he has, in his insanity, slaughtered nothing but a herd of sheep.

After that, what’s left for a hero to do?

Philoktetes and Ajax emphatically bring to mind current issues:  fruitless wars that last ten years, and the grievous plight of fighters, suffering wounds that won’t heal, lacking their due respect, who may be driven to violence and suicide.  Seeing these issues laid bare in ancient stories expands them to the universal.      

Other highlights include Kate Michaud’s passionate and complex performance as Herakles’ wife Dejanira, stung by Herakles’ rejection of her in favor of a younger woman but loving him still — with good reason, that’s one mighty, compelling Herakles played by Victor Joel Ortiz.

With the shaved head and dark garb of a Buddhist monk, Holly Chou, a brilliant character actor playing the Blind Seer, speaks prophetic ambiguities with precise articulation — what an irony! 

Betsy Lippit bounds into Elektra an explosive tomboy.  What a fury she is, grappling in full rage with her mother Clytaemnestra, who brings out her side of the story, played by Akyiaa Wilson.  These are only among my favorite episodes and performances — there are great moments throughout.  There are, after all, 7 plays and a cast of 37! 

These Seven Sicknesses is a rich feast of theater!

These Seven Sicknessess plays at the Flea Theater in Manhattan’s Tribeca through March 4.*


*Due to popular demand, The Flea Theater will bring back THESE SEVEN SICKNESSES this summer. This critically lauded theatrical adaptation of Sophocles’ seven surviving plays (Oedipus, In Trachis, Philoktetes, In Colonus, Ajax, Elektra and Antigone) will return for a limited engagement June 6 through July 1

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén