Simply put, Brian Kulick is no Mary Zimmerman.
So much of The Mysteries, the new play Kulick has directed for the Classic Stage Company, feels like an attempt at recreating the same type of genre-defining (and career-defining) work that Zimmerman brought to New York just over two years ago in Metamorphoses. But while there are plenty of similarities between the two works - time-honored stories, unique and constantly shifting methods of presentation - The Mysteries is ultimately less satisfying and more frustrating.
Zimmerman knew how to take ancient myths and present them in a crisp, attractive, conceptually consistent package that melded the traditional with the modern. Kulick's attempts to do much the same with stories from the Bible feel sloppy and self-indulgent, and though the show is not poorly structured, there's enough uneven (and uncomfortable) acting to obscure much of what Kulick does that works.
He has taken scenes from English mystery plays - guild-produced secularized religious dramas, which were first performed in the 13th century or so and have been adapted here by Tony Harrison - detailing events of the Old Testament and joined them with modern interpretations of stories from the New Testament. The result is a play that examines religious attitudes in theatre over the course of the last several hundred years of theatrical history. As the stories are presented in the order they appear in the Bible (generally one Testament per act), the stories of The Mysteries are always easy to follow.
But Kulick doesn't fully realize his ambition, even as set forth in the (lengthy) Playbill insert that describes the project's genesis. He writes, "we were simply curious to see what would happen if we put a medieval sensibility along side a modern one." Yet, as presented here, the first act's sensibility is medieval in language only, and then only occasionally; it is elevated in writing, but with something of a modern filter to make it more palatable to 2004 audiences. One expecting a presentation of scenes from either the York or Wakefield Cycles with any historical relevance will likely be disappointed.
While this all does tie in with the mystery plays' original goal - explain the mysteries of God to the great masses of uneducated and/or uninterested - it does little to fulfill Kulick's mission, as it doesn't allow the first act to contrast with the second to any significant degree. It mostly feels like exposition, presented in contemporary dress (by Mattie Ullrich) and setting (Mark Wendland), and given just enough attention to provide some interpretive context for the works of Dario Fo, Borislav Pekic, and Mikhail Bulgakov comprising the second act.
But that's the problem: these newer works provide their own context, and were written with modern sensibilities in mind; there's no additional level of interpretation on them as there is on the first act mysteries. The difference is jarring and not at all cohesive; the second act, with much less of a disconnect between the writing and the performance, works better dramatically.
One can only assume Kulick instructed his actors to deliver practically every line in stage-wide tones and with exaggerated expressions, presumably paying homage to the performing style of the original mysteries, yet that doesn't make the result more effective. The worst offender is Bill Buell, who plays a Noah buffoonish enough to suggest he may turn into a community theatre Falstaff at any moment. But Michael Stuhlbarg gives Buell a run for his money in the first act as Lucifer and Isaac, though he redeems himself somewhat as Jesus during the second act.
Most of the other members of the 9-person troupe don't make much of an impression, but Sam Tsoutsouvas, who plays God in the first act, manages to restrain himself and create something approaching a thoughtful character. (If you're going to have one sensible character in a play like this, God's a good choice.) But it's never quite enough to make up for the general lack of care and creativity present in The Mysteries that never help elevate it above the pedestrian and the predictable.
The evening's defining moment occurs during the "Noah's Flood" mystery, when ensemble members solemnly throw bucket after bucket of water on Jennifer Roszell while she's dramatically over-emoting as Noah's suffering wife. Designed strictly for laughs and camouflaging the meaning of this story, this moment - like many others Kulick has devised - suggests that The Mysteries, like Roszell, is all wet.
Classic Stage Company