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A CurtainUp Review
This is a true recycling of Biblical theater! Leaning on the York Cycle of 47 medieval playlets as his structural blueprint, Iskandar lets its 15th-century English atmosphere blow through his latter-day work. To bring the Cycle into the present-tense and give it an American pulse, Iskandar invited each playwright collaborating on the project to sift through the Christian Bible's 66 books, and take one of its tales from the page to the stage. The result is a Biblical bouillabaisse that is potently seasoned with the peculiar and particular vision of each individual author.
With all these artists penning v the equivalent of scriptural sound bytes (all clock in somewhere between one to ten minutes), The Mysteries is really a caper through the Biblical fields. It starts out in the Garden of Eden, dips into the River Nile, skips across the desert and up Mount Ararat, flutters over to Bethlehem, and then heads straight on to Nazareth, Gethsemane, Cavalry, and beyond. While no Biblical personage gets fully fleshed out, there's enough verisimilitude in each that one can easily be pulled into the dramatic moment at any point.
All the action takes place on the Flea's main stage. The performing space is long and narrow in design, with audience members sitting alongside it in two banks of seats facing one another. Jason Sherwood's Spartan set is unfussy. In fact, the only stage architecture is in the flies: a large circular-shaped structure that, in its simplicity, hints of the cyclical nature of life or perhaps serves as a metaphysical nod to eternity.
Sherwood also has designed two red-flecked scrims that are draped behind each audience section, where the Angel Chorus stand in mirror-image tableaus, alternately veiling — or revealing— themselves to viewers, depending on the scene's dramatic purpose.
Seth Reiser floods the stage with light that goes into eclipse, or hovers somewhere in-between. I would be quite remiss if I didn't mention Loren Shaw's costumes that range from literally nothing on to jockey briefs, skin-hugging tights and mid-drift tops; also frocks and hoods, t-shirts and baseball caps (of course, turned backwards) and a number of androgynous outfits. In fact, the only thing that is missing from the wardrobe is plate armor and helmets for the Guards in Chris Dimond's "Slaughter of the Innocents." But then isn't theater all about the suspension of disbelief and exercising one's imagination?
To single out any playlet from the 50 sketches seems an injustice to the rest as each has its own character and uncanny appeal. True, some are salted with more dramatic power than others. But humor seems to be the staple ingredient peppered into the whole. There's Dael Orladersmith's opening "Song of the Trimorph," which introduces an androgynous figure named Adrian, the archangel Gabriel (and other angelic beings) and Beelzebub. As these figures retreat to the sidelines, a surge of other individuals enter, with music in turn knelling, fading, or swelling in fresh measure.
Jason Williamson's "Eighth Day" weighs in with a fitting Creation Hymn, all-too-quickly followed by Madeleine George's "The Fall of Man." And, if despair is palpable with Adam and Eve's double fall in Eden, it really hits home with David Henry Hwang's adaptation of "Cain and Abel" which gives new definition and bucolic texture to the first-ever murder story and the "mark of Cain." In his retelling of the episode, Hwang has the angel Gabriel, following Cain's deed of fratricide, dust him with a powder that "shimmers" so that any murder-minded individual won't hurt him but think him a "God" with power over life and death. No, it doesn't make Cain any more likeable, but it clearly establishes God the Father's phenomenal compassion for his fallen son.
When it comes to dramatic moments in this three-act production, there are plenty more to witness. Whether its Eve taking that first bite out of the forbidden fruit in Madeleine George's "A Worm Walks into a Garden" or the sting Christ must have felt when the Crown of Thorns was placed mockingly on His head (Christ literally means "anointed one," and his faux crown can remind one that Jesus' family lineage traces back to King David of the Psalms fame) in Jenny Schwartz's "Road to Cavalry."
Part Biblical history lesson, part Sunday School catechism, and altogether transfixing (and ultimately transcendent), The Mysteries is a theatrical journey that begins in wonder and ends in wisdom. The acting by the young Bats is uniformly solid, a true ensemble effort. The also serve a Mediterranean dinner and dessert at the breaks. Forget the fourth wall! It is non-existent in this show.
Admittedly, not everything that transpires on stage over the 6-hour stretch is congruent: Some sketches aren't fully realized, and some Biblical personages remain only types. But Iskandar's light-handed direction saves The Mysteries at every twist and turn, and keeps everything moving along in this world where God still spoke to his creations vis-a-vis, through his archangel Gabriel, or Burning Bushes and Pillars of Light.
If The Seven Sicknesses was a feather in Iskandar's cap, this sublime production adds another brilliant plume.