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The Mysteries

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Colin Waitt and the Cast.
Photo by Hunter Canning.

Best brush up on your Bible stories and make sure you are well rested before heading out to the Flea Theater and director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar's breathtaking and boldly conceived production of The Mysteries, a retelling of the Old and New Testament as seen through the eyes of 48 contributing playwrights and performed by a cast of 53 over the course of six hours.

Yes, it is an epic theatergoing experience, but rest assured, you will not only be thoroughly engrossed, but you also will be fed dinner and desert and generally made to feel warmly welcomed by the members of the cast, who spread out among the audience members for a friendly meet-and-greet before the program and during its two breaks. (Hi, Asia, A.J., Matthew and all the others who stopped by to say hello!).

The Mysteries draws on the traditional cycle of religious "mystery plays," dating to medieval times. As such, the evening has a decidedly Jesus-centric slant, but the Flea's production represents a thorough reconsideration, embracing both the sacred and the profane while taking us on a journey from the Creation and the fall of Lucifer, through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and beyond.

From a theatrical perspective, the real mystery to ponder is how the Flea has managed to pull off this tour de force production in such a way as to keep an audience immersed in the storytelling throughout the long day's journey into night, without relying on a narrator or costly and elaborate special effects. Many a Broadway production would do well to heed this lesson.

After Mr. Iskandar—who recalled being taken as a child to see the mystery plays in York, England—proposed the project, the Flea's artistic director Jim Simpson and its producing director Carol Ostrow commissioned contributions from such established playwrights as David Henry Hwang and Craig Lucas, along with a number of lesser known writers, and even a surprise or two, like Billy Porter, Tony-winning star of Broadway's Kinky Boots.

Writing assignments were divvied up, and Iskandar and dramaturg Jill Rafson (with additional writing support by members of the theatrical company CollaborationTown) were charged with making everything flow into one continuous story—"The Greatest Story Ever Told." The result is an astoundingly complex, compelling, and provocative evening, driven by the varying perspectives and writing styles of the contributors yet somehow smoothly connected into a singular experience.

We begin with Lucifer (Asia Kate Dillon), who bypasses God (Matthew Jeffers) by bringing light into the Universe. God is clearly annoyed, but really He is not terribly interested in much beyond being praised and worshiped. "Do you love me?" He asks of Lucifer, who—Cordelia to God's impatient Lear—responds with more information than He cares to hear: "I do love you…though I'm beginning to see you're not perfect." Oops. Eternal banishment for that one.

God then goes about setting things up on Earth, and during the first third of the evening, we are in realm of the Old Testament. There are versions of the stories of Adam and Eve (this might be a good time to mention that there is a good deal of unclad full-body exposure throughout The Mysteries); Cain and Abel (David Henry Hwang's contribution); Abraham (told as a revenge tale leading to the near-sacrifice of Isaac; Noah (for the record, my favorite of the Old Testament segments, written in two episodes, one by Trista Baldwin and the other by Mallery Avidon); and Moses (from the point of view of the Pharaoh's daughter).

By the end of Part I, God has pretty much left the scene in disgust, turning the task of overseeing things to his lieutenant Gabriel (Alice Allemano), who, along with Lucifer, moves in and out of the action throughout. No explanation is provided for God's departure until many hours later towards the end of the play, when he returns as petulant as ever: "I don't know how I could have made things easier. Don't eat the apple… Maybe don't murder other people…"

During the first break, the cast members mingle with the audience and serve up a pleasant dinner before heading into Part II, the story of Jesus (Colin Waitt). As before, there are many contributing playwrights involved, and the story incorporates elements of history, politics, darkly biting satire, challenges to doctrine, and earnest religious fervor. Think of it as Jesus Christ Superstar meets The Passion of the Christ.

There is some truly heady stuff going on in this section, so that the desert break comes as a welcome pause before moving into Part III. This final third continues with the death and resurrection of Jesus before moving into the last phase, which might be thought of as commentary on all that came before and what it might mean in the grand scheme of things. By the time you head out into the night, and regardless of where you fall on the scale of religiosity, you will have experienced an extraordinarily emotional and intellectual sojourn.

There is so much to praise for this truly amazing theatrical event. The writing, the directing, the acting, the musicianship (music is interspersed throughout, ranging from Handel to original pieces by David Dabbon), even the food—it all works beautifully. Kudos to all, including the 11 stage managers. What a night!

The Mysteries
Through May 25
Running Time: 6 hours with two intermissions
Flea Theater, 41 White Street between Broadway and Church Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix