Monday, May 5, 2014

The Mysteries ***

No one can accuse Ed Sylvanus Iskandar of thinking small. After his previous two hits at the Flea Theater — “These Seven Sicknesses,” a 4 1/2-hour Sophocles mash-up (use this site's search tool to see my review) and the 3 1/2-hour “Restoration Comedy” — Iskandar is back with his most ambitious project yet, a modern version of a medieval mystery play cycle, covering Bible stories from Creation to the Last Judgment, as interpreted by 48 different playwrights. The cast of 50 (almost as many actors as there are people in the audience) are members of the Flea’s talented young resident company, The Bats. The staging is highly immersive, with the audience seated in facing sections of only two rows of seats. The actors also use runways behind the seats separated by a curtain of semi-transparent plastic strips. You are literally only inches away from the action. The four dozen plus playlets include a wide variety of styles and genres, ranging from the reverent to the blasphemous, the sophisticated to the sophomoric, the philosophical to the salacious. Some follow the underlying story fairly closely while others are original riffs on biblical themes. God is played by an actor who is about four feet tall. The angels Lucifer and Gabriel, whose competition is one of the threads running through the play, are played by women. Mary is first seen as a Valley Girl, worried about whether her pregnancy will prevent her from finishing high school. Pontius Pilate is portrayed as a Western sheriff. After the resurrection, Jesus’s first sighting is in Brooklyn. You get the idea. There’s nudity, which makes sense for Adam and Eve, but less so for Lazarus. Who knew that the Apostles were all so buff? There’s lots of music throughout with an angel chorus, a gospel choir and a band of musicians. There’s also dancing and some convincing fight scenes. Iskandar is credited as conceiver and director, with ample support from dramaturg Jill Rafson. CollaborationTown provided the interstitial text that, with varying success, glues the disparate segments together. As with any anthology, some stories work better than others. The third and final section, in my opinion, contained both some of the best and the worst material. After recruiting so many playwrights to contribute, the creative team may have felt bound to include all their work. This is unfortunate, because some judicious trimming would have significantly improved the work. Having the actors chat with the audience before and after the play and during intermission while serving us dinner and dessert is an integral part of Iskandar’s view of theater as a communal experience. During the first intermission, audience members were also invited to pose with some of the actors for a selfie as Jesus in a nativity scene. I compliment the Flea for this ambitious effort. At 5 hours, 35 minutes (including two intermissions), it was simply too much of a mostly good thing. 

P.S. Here's a link to the full credits:

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