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Theatre in Review: The Mysteries (Flea Theatre)

Sarah Keyes. Photo: Hunter Canning

Consider the following statement from the program bio of Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, director of The Mysteries: "As founding artistic director of [the theatre company] Exit, Pursued by a Bear (EPBB), he has served over 11,000 home-cooked meals over the course of staging eight labs and 40 salons (all New York premieres)."

Can James Lapine or Joe Mantello say the same? Iskandar is something new, director as party giver. His productions are usually supersized in terms of length: Restoration Comedy, seen a couple of years ago at the Flea, ran well over three hours, as did These Seven Sicknesses, a mashup of the seven extant plays of Sophocles, produced at the Flea last season. Both productions came with dinner and dessert served during the intermissions by members of the cast. The Mysteries, which may be his biggest effort yet, runs over five-and-a-half hours, and once again features the amenities mentioned above. More than once, before the show and between acts, you will find yourself in conversation with a member of the company, who will remind you that if you'd like anything to drink, he or she will be happy to get it for you. Not during the play, of course: During the crucifixion of Christ, for example, their minds are obviously elsewhere.

Any way you look at it, The Mysteries is an extraordinarily ambitious work. It is modeled on the York Mystery Plays, a cycle of 48 short dramas based on episodes from the Bible, which were staged around the Feast of Corpus Christi in the 14th and 15th centuries. To realize a modern vision of this act of medieval piety, Iskandar has drawn on an astonishing lineup of 48 contemporary playwrights, including Mallery Avidon, Bill Cain, Amy Freed, Madeleine George, Kirsten Greenidge, Jordan Harrison, Lucas Hnath, David Henry Hwang, Craig Lucas, Ellen McLaughlin, Dael Orlandersmith, Kate Moira Ryan, Billy Porter, José Rivera, Najla Said, Jeff Whitty, and a couple of dozen more. We begin just before the Creation and follow through to Abraham and Isaac before jumping from the Old Testament to the New, continuing with the Annunciation and tracking the story of Christ from birth through crucifixion, resurrection, and beyond to the Final Judgment.

As you might imagine, the pieces vary in length, sensibility, and quality, but there are clear through-lines that tackle the central problems of Christianity: If God is good, why is there evil? If Christ died for our sins, why do we continue to behave so atrociously? How does one reconcile the notion of an all-knowing and all-powerful God with free will? Iskandar's team of playwrights wrestle with these questions and with God Himself: exalting Him, spoofing Him, excoriating Him, dethroning Him, and reinstating Him. The more conventionally pious members of the audience may occasionally be offended but they cannot accuse this troupe of not taking their subject seriously.

Overall, the point of view of The Mysteries leans toward deism, the Enlightenment philosophy that presents God as a kind of clockmaker who created the universe, then left it alone to run according to its own laws. We see God squabbling with, then abandoning, Lucifer, setting in motion the events of the Bible, but even in Eden he is surprisingly enigmatic. He tells Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply. "How do we do that?" wonders Eve. "I've made it self-explanatory," the Supreme Being replies. Maybe so, but for the rest of The Mysteries, the characters will struggle to know and understand God's will, sometimes with disastrous results. Before it is over, God will be called on the carpet for his neglect of creation.

A project like this is necessarily uneven, but The Mysteries provides more than enough striking passages to make it worthwhile. The murder of Abel by Cain is powerfully done, provoking a dismayed moan from the audience. The impregnation of Mary by Gabriel (who acts as God's surrogate for most of the running time) is staged as invasive, not unlike a rape. Amusingly, her unexplained pregnancy makes her the target of Nazareth's mean girls; for her part, she asks, "Can I still graduate?" Herod's slaughter of the innocents is acted out by professional torturers out of Zero Dark Thirty. Jesus himself is strikingly ambivalent about the circumstances of his birth, citing "that awkward moment when you realize that God sacrificed 10,000 babies so you could live. What am I supposed to do with this?"

Jesus, by the way, is presented as a bisexual, which certainly provides food for thought: It wasn't that long ago that one had to step past protestors and through metal detectors to see Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi, as its depiction of Christ and the Apostles as gay set off a barrage of death threats. The Mysteries' Jesus is part of a polyamorous triangle with Judas and Mary Magdalene, and nobody is blinking. How times have changed. And while we're on the subject, Judas gets short shrift here, as his motivation for betraying Jesus is held back as long as possible in order to facilitate a major revelation, not to be discussed here, that consists of one of the more theologically provocative ideas The Mysteries has to offer.

Many of the best passages are centered on the Passion story. A seemingly bizarre account of Pontius Pilate's interview with Jesus, depicting him as a cowboy, his wife as a Kabuki bride, and the high priests Annas and Caiaphas as an American Indian and an Arab spy, respectively, has a surprise twist that leads into a stimulating discussion that accuses the authors of Scripture of shifting the blame for the crucifixion from the Romans to the Jews, thus provoking centuries of anti-Semitic thinking. The torture and crucifixion of Jesus are staged with hair-raising intensity. (In one especially blood-curdling sequence, a Roman soldier practices hideous humiliations on Mary.) And, as one of the thieves killed with Jesus prophesies, it may all be for naught; he conjures up a future in which "the religion founded -- haha --upon your existence will be held up to justify the slaughter of millions over hundreds and thousands of years, for the brutal sins of domination and exploitation, the lynchings, the massacres and genocide, the relentless militarism. Everything you stood for will be erased."

Far less successful are the passages that aim for satire and end up achieving little more than a Godspell-style cutesiness. Among these are the story of Abraham and Isaac, told à la Duck Dynasty, and Joseph's courtship of Mary, which becomes a rose ceremony out of The Bachelor. There are odd inventions -- Joseph appears at Golgotha to take Jesus down from the cross and Paul, in his identity as Saul, the persecutor of Christians, kills James, the brother of Jesus. Paul, most interestingly, is presented as a slick entrepreneur who sets the nascent church on the wrong track -- pitting a more relaxed, loving version of Christianity against a money-spinning, soul-destroying bureaucracy -- from which it has never recovered.

Once Jesus is resurrected, The Mysteries begins to drag a bit, becoming less certain in its outlook and seemingly struggling to find the right ending; because its creators seem unsure whether to conclude on a celebratory or skeptical note, it tries both, moving from a triumphant Pentecost to a tough-minded confrontation with God the Father that seems to end the play, yet returning on a more conventionally reverent note after the curtain call. There is a real honesty in the way that Iskandar, his writers, and the rest of the team are willing to wrestle with these issues, but their willingness to consider all sides of the argument proves a little exhausting in the long run.

In any case, the company is an almost constant joy. Among the more striking performances, Alice Allemano's Gabriel is the perfect government functionary, moving the action along in the name of an absent God; Jaspal Binning is an endearingly clueless Adam, full of stupid jokes about creation; Allison Buck is a powerfully rebellious Mary who has to be physically dragged into Heaven; Asia Kate Dillon is a compelling presence as Lucifer, as is Tyler Gardella as Beelzebub; Matthew Jeffers' God is both imperious and befuddled by his own creation; Karsten Otto is touching as Joseph, who knows that he is only a supporting character in his son's story; and Colin Waitt, who looks like a young Ethan Hawke, is both charismatic and believably tormented as Jesus.

Iskandar makes good use of Jason Sherwood's orange-tinged scenic design, which consists of a traverse stage backed on both sides by transparent strips of plastic, behind which members of the company appear to raise their voices in song, to offer apples in temptation, or to impersonate a score of dead bodies in the tomb with Lazarus. Seth Reiser's lighting, Loren Shaw's costumes (which draw on many periods), and Jeremy S. Bloom's sound design all provide solid support.

Most of all, The Mysteries is meant to be a celebration of community; not only does its text suggest that we are all in this together, it illustrates this premise with the sharing of food, drink, and conversation, in the process breaking down the barrier between actors and audience. (Worry not; there is no audience participation.) It seems churlish to complain about a production for packing in too many ideas, but there you are. If The Mysteries threatens to wear out its welcome before the last days, it cannot be accused of lacking in provocations. The people are charming, the food is delicious, and Iskandar and company have given us a great deal to think about during this Easter season.--David Barbour

(21 April 2014)

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