Off-Off-Broadway Theater Review: THE MYSTERIES (The Flea Theater)

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by Paul Birchall on July 5, 2014

in Theater-New York

THEATER AS A TEMPLE

The Flea Theater commissioned 48 different playwrights to contribute short dramatic pieces to this tremendous production, which basically recounts all the narratives in the Bible from before the beginning of the universe to after its end.  The cycle’s list of authors contains newbies to some unexpectedly major names, from David Henry Hwang and Craig Lucas.

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The result is one of the most transformative theater projects in memory:  It’s an audacious theatrical spectacle; totally immersive; and about as expansive and varied as human experience itself.  The Mysteries runs well over 5 hours, divided into three 90-minute acts, and by the end of it you feel like you’re close personal friends with Jesus and his cool, twentysomething, New York hipster apostles, but those aren’t the only reasons that this show makes you remember how fresh and exciting theater can be.

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50 different plays by almost as many different playwrights is a massive undertaking in which each vignette varies in tone from the one before it.  The actors playing the characters do not change from play to play; this forces the performers to be as comfortable and convincing with farce as they are playing tragedy.  It is also fascinating to contemplate the mental and emotional gymnastics that each performer of The Bats (the resident acting company of The Flea) must have undergone to ensure that each character maintains the same internal psychological throughline when they appear in different plays by very different authors.

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The first act deals with the Old Testament books and the Nativity.  In playwright Dale Orlandersmith’s Song of the Trimorph, the angels in Heaven mindlessly worship God (a deliciously petty, yet shrewdly authoritative Matthew Jeffers), who takes it as His due until Lucifer (Asia Kate Dillon) starts to question whether love without choice means anything.

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Dillon’s beautifully delicate, white-haired devil is one of the show’s most complex figures. Watching her evolve from nuanced philosopher to diabolical heavy to world-weary cynic, depending on the vignette, is fascinating.  The narrative speeds its way through the Bible. Highlights include Madeleine George’s surprisingly feminist take on the Adam and Eve story; Hwang’s marvelously urgent Cain and Abel tale, which posits the first murder as a story of vengeance against a capricious God; and Mallery Avidon’s whimsically horrifying tale of Noah’s Flood, which also entails the deaths of everyone who didn’t make it aboard the Ark.

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Young Mary (Allison Buck) is told by the Angel Gabriel (Alice Allemano) that she is to bear the child of God in Jordan Harrison’s The Annunciation.  Buck offers one of the most far-ranging and thoughtful turns of the production:  She’s a bewildered virgin mother in The Annunciation, but is a politically savvy, ferociously protective guardian in Chris Dimond’s Slaughter of the Innocents, which recounts her justification of protecting her baby when Herod orders thousands of other children murdered.  Much later, in Lillian Groag’s brilliant The Death of Mary, Buck appears as an octogenarian Mary in a nursing home, fighting against Gabriel’s orders that she come to Heaven.

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The show’s second section deals with the Life of Jesus, with Colin Waitt’s astonishingly variegated boy-next-door Jesus shifting from an idealistic dreamer as he travels with Mary and Joseph to a forceful, almost angry philosopher when he argues with Lucifer about the nature of love to a bratty dolt when he confronts Gabriel about his inevitable fate.  The fact that the playwrights clearly have a different idea of Jesus’s personality sets Wiatt a complex task:  He has to make his Christ the same in all situations; whether he’s being comic or tragic, Wiatt is convincing and moving in a performance of stunning versatility.

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Indeed, his likable turns in Gabriel Jason Dean’s beautiful Christ Enters Jerusalem makes his ferocious agonies in Qui Nguyen’s Christ Before Herod and his subsequent crucifixion all the more heartrending. The third act deals with Christ’s resurrection and humanity’s fate at the Day of Judgment, and includes a series of plays set in modern times, as well as God’s final words to Lucifer, Jesus, and to us.  The show’s final Day of Judgment coda by Jose Rivera is an essay of forgiveness and unexpected love.

themysteries9pontius-pilotThe show is by definition sprawling, but so powerful is the storytelling that you really don’t notice over five hours have gone by.  Director Ed Sylvanus Iskander’s production often possesses the mood of a revival meeting, an atmosphere which is enhanced by sweet touches such as having the cast mingle among the audience during the supper break between Acts I and II (if you aren’t impressed when the Virgin Mary serves you hummus there’s something wrong with you) and the obvious enthusiasm with which they wish you farewell at the end of the show.

Ultimately, it’s a hard thing to bring freshness to stories as perennial and well known as these; yet this is a production of such dramatic scope and heft that it’ll make a believer of you – even if it’s a believer of theater’s ability to transform experience more than religion itself.

photos by Jonathan Hollingsworth

The Mysteries
The Flea Theater, 41 White Street
Mon & Fri at 6:30 and Sat & Sun at 4:30
ends on July 14, 2014
for tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit The Flea

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