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Theatre in Review: Paradise Lost (Fellowship for Performing Arts/Theatre Row)

Caption: Lou Liberatore, David Andrew Macdonald. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Fellowship for Performing Arts' mission involves "telling imaginative stories from a Christian worldview," according to artistic director Max McLean's program notes, which makes this astonishingly literal-minded production at Theatre Row all the more perplexing. Paradise Lost is billed as being "inspired by the poem by John Milton," but the stately cadences of that epic work are entirely missing. Your correspondent freely admits to being no fan of Milton, but at least he knew what he was about, and no one has ever accused his lengthy narrative poem of lacking a unified vision. In contrast, Tom Dulack's play is more like the Classics Illustrated version, abridging the action of the original and ramming home its points with the insistence of a Sunday school teacher.

Milton's Paradise Lost tracks the rebellion of Lucifer and his army of wayward angels, who end up consigned to hell; later, bent on vengeance against God, Lucifer invades the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve frolic in preternatural innocence. Lucifer -- or Satan, as he is now known -- tricks Eve into eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, thus causing the fall of man. Dulack's version starts after Lucifer, et al. have been dispatched to the Lake of Fire, and it is all over the place, torn between low camp and high theology.

For example, Lucifer is played straight, with considerable presence and incisiveness, by David Andrew Macdonald, who gives the character the decisiveness of a general and the vocal manner of a matinee idol. His fury at "the Tyrant" for being replaced as vice-regent by "His intolerable Messiah son" is palpable, as is his desperation at being trapped in an inferno, absent an escape hatch, with several hundred million angry angel-soldiers. Later on, spreading trouble in Eden, he finds himself utterly captivated by Eve, to such an extent that one suspects he almost regrets his thirst for revenge. I am hardly the first to note that Lucifer is by far the most compelling character in Milton's poem, an effect that is replicated here, thanks to Macdonald's commanding work.

Which makes it all the more bewildering that the playwright provides this seductive icon of evil with a cohort of lame cartoon villains. Beelzebub is presented as Lucifer's thickheaded, put-upon Sancho Panza, kvetching while his boss fumes. Commenting about the aftermath of the celestial battle, he cracks, "I said to Belial just before we launched, I said, 'Pal, this may not be the smartest move we have ever made.'" Later, when the troops are getting restless, he counsels Lucifer, "Mammon is in favor of negotiating with Him. He thinks we can cut a deal." The character is in the blessedly professional hands of Lou Liberatore, who gives the character a salty, Ernest Borgnine quality, but there's only so much a devil can do.

Still, he fares better than the always-stylish Alison Fraser, here cast as the personification of Sin. Rolling in on a scooter -- you read that right -- outfitted in a Morticia Addams wig and sporting a skirt wreathed in human entrails, she calls Lucifer "lover-nuts" and Beelzebub "bubble-balls" and "bouillabaisse." (Following one of Lucifer's tirades, she says, "You certainly do have a way with words, Schatzie, I'll give you that.") Fraser always rolls with the punches, and here she digs into speeches that recall how she and Lucifer -- her father -- rutted incestuously, producing their son, Death, who is also her lover. But the decision to frame the character as something along the lines of a special guest villainess on the old Batman TV series is a mystery it would take a Martin Luther to explain.

Adam and Eve, of course, are presented as innocence itself. Robbie Simpson and Marina Shay go about their Edenic business -- naming animals, pruning the garden, and discovering the joys of sex -- with gusto, but their scenes are overextended, especially when Gabriel - an imposing Mel Johnson, Jr. -- shows up to laboriously explain matters the audience has heard about a thousand times before. Or, as he puts it, "While you slept, the security of the Garden was breached by a fiend escaped from Hell. He means to ruin you. Fortunately, I arrived in time to drive him off before he could actually practice any harm against the two of you. But you must be on your guard against further mischief." Dulack supplies some imaginative details -- I learned more about angels' digestive systems and lovemaking techniques than I ever could have imagined -- but these scenes are so ponderously written that one feels impatient to get back to Hell.

In addition to its overly familiar story and lack of drama, the entire enterprise has an air of condescension; it has nothing new or stimulating to add, and so stolidly does it make its points that, more than once, I felt I was seeing a children's theatre production. The conception also comes with a strange, if unintended, effect. As per usual, Eve is presented as the authoress of man's fall, for allowing herself to be duped by Lucifer; the script doubles down on this, presenting her as trouble from the get-go, being fatally afflicted with curiosity and unable to leave well enough alone. (Adam, by contrast, has only one flaw: He loves Eve excessively, leading him to risk God's displeasure. Clearly, the unknown author of Genesis was a man.) The theological consequences of this myth have long been debated (and lamented), but, by also making Sin a woman -- the only other female onstage -- the production appears to be saying we'd all be back in the garden, enjoying ourselves, but for those pesky dames. Also, given the absolute contrast between wide-eyed Eve and the wickedly carnal Sin, we seem to be present at the birth of the virgin-whore complex.

Overall, however, the approach in this Paradise Lost's can best be described as a Biblical fairy tale. This is especially seen in the production design, which includes Harry Feiner's multilevel garden set and John Narun's projections of fallen angels, fiery landscapes, and a Rousseauvian paradise. (The transformation of Eden following Adam and Eve's fatal trespass is cleverly handled.) Sydney Maresca's costumes include singed and broken wings for Lucifer and Beelzebub, and decorously arranged layers of flesh-toned garments for Adam and Eve. Phil Monat's lighting capably creates a variety of atmospheres, and John Gromada's sound design effectively delivers trumpet flourishes, cheering crowds, animal noises, thunder, and motorcycle rumbles. Everyone's work is solid, but the emphasis on literalizing the narrative diminishes its theological power.

Indeed, with its pasteboard Eden, eye-grabbing projections, and gimmicky costumes -- such as a snakeskin suit for Lucifer's serpentine encounter with Eve -- we seem to have arrived at a Genesis theme park where the sorrows of humankind and the hope of divine redemption are subordinated to theatrical gags; intended to be playful, they are too often leaden and distracting. This foundational myth of Christianity is meant to get at both our eternal, endlessly tormenting inability to turn away from evil and the forever-burning hope that, at long last, we can return to a place of eternal love -- points that, strangely, are never made with any forcefulness in this production. Everyone involved in this Paradise Lost is so busy building a staging ground for Genesis that the soul of the story has eluded them. --David Barbour

(28 January 2020)

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