The Mysteries: In brief
Ed Iskandar (These Seven Sicknesses, Restoration Comedy) directs another marathon Flea circus—six hours, with a dinner break—in an ambitious refashioning of stories from the Bible. Among the 48 contributing playwrights are David Henry Hwang, Craig Lucas, José Rivera, Jeff Whitty, Amy Freed, Nick Jones, Qui Nguyen, Jenny Schwartz, Billy Porter and Erin Courtney.
The Mysteries: Theater review by Helen Shaw
An obvious revelation dawns while watching the valiant but wearying anthology play The Mysteries: Multiple authorship can confuse an issue. Certainly that's been true for the work's source text; The Mysteries attempts to adapt a big chunk of the Bible, from Genesis all the way to the doors of Revelation. Scholars estimate that 40 to 60 authors are represented in the Good Book, with psalm singers, Moses and Paul all strung out across1,600 years. And rather than turning their many gospels and letters and testaments into a single “greatest story” plot, conceiver-director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar has embraced complexity by commissioning 48 playwrights to tackle basic biblical highlights, then stringing their microplays together and adding breaks for songs. The results, as in the original, are mixed.
The Flea space is now blood-red and boasts traverse seating—as it did for Iskandar's other ambitious completist attempt, the Greek anthology play These Seven Sicknesses. The two halves of the audience face each other, sitting against walls made of crimson-spattered plastic strips, which conceal platforms farther back. Designer Jason Sherwood has made a room that can thus be completely ringed by barely visible performers who can peep over our shoulders, caress us or offer us apples. Even in almost six hours of performance—liberally broken with dinner intermissions (dintermissions?)—these omnipresent cast members never flag. Instead they serve us our falafel meal with their own hands, and engage us in conversation both before and after the show. It's fellowship, at fire-hose strength.
Enormous will and care have gone into stitching together the 52 episodes (dramaturg Jill Rafson and Iskandar exert extraordinary control), but there's an inevitable diminishing of returns after so many climaxes. And the waters, just like the ones under floating baby Moses, grow muddy indeed. Four dozen playwrights take four dozen spiritual positions, which allows bubbles of radical reimagining to emerge only to sink again beneath the waves. For instance, our very first playwright, Dael Orlandersmith, paints Lucifer (Asia Kate Dillon) as a sweetheart Cordelia type refusing to curry favor with an insecure God (Matthew Jeffers). The fallen Light bringer keeps popping up throughout, and yet while Lucifer makes a number of solid points—many vigorously antichurch—she's still costumed as a blood-smeared reptile. Does evil exist? Or does it only exist when it can dress super cool? The only “good” everyone seems to sign on for is truth-through-eroticism. Whether Old Testament or New, everybody spreads the Word through kissing or by whipping off clothes. Woo! Spring break Nazareth 33!
Some of the structure's disorientations bear fruit. Our tale, though mapped chronologically onto familiar stories (Cain and Abel, the Flood), careers through genre and time—writer Lloyd Suh might update Jesus' first postdeath appearance to present-day Brooklyn, while others leave our Galilean friends in their typical homespun drapes and sandals. The Bats, the Flea's enormous non-Equity company, can negotiate these tonal shifts in their sleep, making dorky jokes about doubting Thomas (courtesy of clever Jordan Seavey) and then swiveling into pie-eyed Jesus Christ Superstar–style hippie sincerity. The trouble lies in the deeper places of the texts, few of which form a coherent attitude. Bill Cain manages to offer up one in his Resurrection story, but it turns sickly. Jesus (an enthusiastic Colin Waitt) wonders if he should build a church. “A church?” God (now Karsten Otto) muses. “I think you'd do better with a theater.” This, for want of a better term, is barfy—or at least it's self-regarding and lax.
So what does the total event have to say about God and faith and that whole bit? Moses gets short shrift and Jesus dominates two 90-minute acts, but the real gospel being spread is Iskandar's own. He sees his work, one gathers, as the modern religious experience. His productions incorporate actors serving food, drawing on old patterns of communion, binding us with old guest-host codes. No one can be so cared for and remain unmoved, and the 50-person cast's ecstatic hospitality is the evening's constantly restartable engine. Yet our own uplift does eventually deflate—particularly in the last two hours. My own decline began around Lucas Hnath's version of the Harrowing of Hell. Some prophets were bickering about whom Jesus would rescue from perdition, and the piece was darned inventive. But all I could think as my spine grew into my chair was: I've been here for four hours. Jesus, get me out of here, too.—Theater review by Helen Shaw