Photo by Ray Mickshaw/wireimage
You’ve got to applaud a production that features Tom Fitzpatrick as God. Over the years, in shows ranging from Reza Abdoh’s Boschian spectacles to Evidence Room romps, this gangly actor has exuded creepy charm aplenty, though he’s never been given the chance to reveal what he could do as, well, God Almighty. Here he is, then, as the Creator in Brian Kulick’s presentation of Christian mystery plays now running at Actors’ Gang. And, yea, we see that it is good: Fitzpatrick is certainly convincing as a scowling yet curious puppet master who, come to think of it, reminds one less of the Man Upstairs than of Samuel Beckett, someone who’d create the fly in order to tear its wings off.
We first encounter God as a proud craftsman, not merely proclaiming himself to be the maker of the water, the land, the fish, the sun and the night, but also rubbing in the idea that it’s his world and we just pay the rent to live in it — the first auteur to put his name above the title. After he spins out the water, the land, the fish, etc., Adam and Eve appear (the very naked Alessandro Mastrobuono and Erin Jellison).
They’re happy as seals, not having much in the way of responsibility except to avoid biting into those pippins that fall from the tree of knowledge. Sirens screaming outside the theater remind us of how this all turned out, but, like much of Kulick’s project, the evening’s infectious sense of discovery makes us wonder how, just this once, it might end differently.
Religious dramatizations from the Dark Ages are not exactly box-office gold these days — mystery or miracle plays evolved as arthritically ritualized exercises in biblical storytelling that took centuries to move out of the church (and from Latin) into the village square with vernacular English. Still, these plays are automatically accessible — to some people Oedipus and Medea may as well be perfume brands, but everyone knows about Noah, Cain and Abel, and Christ.
The Mysteries is a rare chance for audiences to glimpse some taproots of Western theater and to take in the bony poetry of an England that had practically, on some level, just emerged from Stonehenge. The plays presented in Act 1 come from regional cycles presented in York, Chester and Townley between the 12th and 14th centuries; the later cycles, according to historian Maurice Keen’s English Society in the Later Middle Ages, 1348–1500, “are vivid, human, full of shrewd contemporary perceptions and often crudely humorous (especially when the devil was on stage).”
Mr. and Mrs. Noah(Photo by Ray Mickshaw/wireimage)
Here, the devil (Gary Kelley) appears early on as an explosively jealous figure whose wild vanity forces us to reconsider the origins of Lucifer, who was, before his fall, as high as anyone on the heavenly masthead. Why did he rebel against God? What led him to make Adam and Eve share his feelings of envy against God? Kulick cunningly plants some evidence in our minds: First, Kelley somewhat resembles a younger version of Fitzpatrick (especially since God and his angels all wear the same winter great coats). Also, their shared egotism and Fitzpatrick’s initial bafflement at Lucifer’s betrayal suggest a filial resemblance to God. It’s a notion that’s supported in the evening’s second half, in which Kelley portrays Jesus.
Act 2’s New Testament lessons are free interpretations of mystery plays written by Dario Fo, Borislav Pekic and Mikhail Bulgakov. Overall, these adaptations are not as moving as their Old Testament predecessors. Fo’s re-imagining of Lazarus’ return to the world, seen as a commercially exploited event, comes off a little too jokey. The resurrection fable continues in Pekic’s speculation about the need of some shortsighted priests to have Lazarus (Fitzpatrick) die yet again (they feel his return from the grave is undermining their authority), but it has more of a punch line than a payoff. Fo’s subsequent piece about a fool’s attempts to bribe some guards to switch Judas’ corpse for Jesus on the cross is less gimmicky than his Lazarus piece but too short to develop any real themes. The evening’s final moments return to the York text and depict biblical characters wailing in hell. While neatly making the point that Jesus’ ultimate appeal is for the spiritually oppressed, these moments seem woefully understaged, with some actors’ line readings sounding tossed off.
Act 2 flies on the wings of Bulgakov’s speculation on how a private meeting between Christ (Kelley) and Pontius Pilate (Robert Dorfman) might have played out. The Roman procurator is seen as a cynical, middle-aged bureaucrat who cannot work himself up to condemn Jesus during his daily rubdown. But while Pilate, flopping around in a terry-cloth robe, may flatter himself with a magnanimous self-image, the presence of a truly charitable Messiah both rattles the Roman and rekindles some flickering humanity buried deep inside him. Dorfman, who appears agonizingly conflicted as Abraham in Act 1, is suavely corrupt here, yet, like all New Testament villains, capable of salvation — he really softens with the possibility of redemption when Jesus tells him, “There are no evil people in the world.” Kelley’s performance is nothing less than gripping as the prophet of peace and acceptance, and as the scene ends, we realize how he has metamorphosed in this staging from God’s traitorous lieutenant to his son, and also how much of this ensemble show he has been carrying.
While some of the texts Kulick has chosen could use more emotional punch and some of the rhymed dialogue of Act 1 gets a little muddied by the actors, he takes few other missteps in The Mysteries and is assisted by some powerful design work. Richard Hoover has constructed an imaginative set in which some audience members sit on cushions in the middle of the floor, while others sit overlooking the action. The center floor is also flanked by a suspended tree, long tables and two walls: one, whose mounted crows seem to represent Old Testament fatalism; the other, on the opposite side, whose rows of candles suggest the New Testament’s redemptive themes and search for knowledge.
Christal Weatherly’s costumes veer from the slapstick (the yellow rain slickers worn by Noah and his wife [Brent Hinkley and Patti Tippo] in a kind of Honeymooners episode dealing with the Flood) to the coolly somber city wear of God and his angels. David Robbins’ sound design is crisp and suggestive without becoming intrusive, and Andrea Housh’s lighting plot guides us along this sometimes funny, sometimes sober journey of faith.
THE MYSTERIES | At ACTORS’ GANG, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through September 28 | (323) 465-0566, Ext. 15