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A CurtainUp Review

The Mysteries

You don't want to be rescued? You really want to die on the cross? Yes? For the Salvation of man? . . .and they call me the Fool. --- Fool in Brian Kulick's adaptation of Dario Fo's The Fool Beneath the Cross.
Bill Buell, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Michael Potts
Bill Buell (rear) Michael Stuhlbarg (on cross), and Michael Potts (Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
Brian Kulick's take on the once wildly popular biblical tales known as the "Mystery Cycles" is in keeping with the way the choice of plays to be performed changed from town to town where double-decker wagons served as stage venues in the public square. The Mysteries-according- to-Kulick uses texts translated by Tony Harrison from established "Cycles" for the first half, and then harnesses the work of contemporary writers to complete the cycle -- the latter countering God's disappointment in man as illustrated in the first act's best-known tales with stories demonstrating man's disappointment in God.

The smartly adapted avante-garde sources for act two and having Adam and Eve dressed in the "costumes" God gave them (this isn't just a quick flash of full frontal nudity but the "full monty") certainly brings the Medieval Mystery Cycles into the twenty-first century. Things are further enlivened by such visual details as an up-side down tree of live hovering over paradise and buckets from which apples and water are spilled. However, this is essentially a serious contemplation of mankind's origins and future. The mostly rhymed and often archaic text is accessible but demands close attention. Yet, though The Mysteries lacks the lightness and enchantment of Mary Zimmerman's updated myths (Metamorphoses ) this is a rare chance to see the "hit plays" of our fifteenth century forbears recreated.

Mark Wendland's earth covered set custom fits the LA production for the CSC's three-sided thrust stage. The long wooden tables which are the chief props are constantly realigned -- from circling the stage in the opening cycle, The Creation, to being moved together to form a platform for the spectators at The Raising of Lazarus and to nail down Christ during the absurd and harrowing version of the crucifixion, The Fool Beneath the Cross . This is all accomplished quite seamlessly since the cast serve as stagehands.

The actors who, like the designers, are not carryovers from LA, not only move props but demonstrate their versatility as part of the ensemble as well as in several key roles -- these double role assignments often make their own commentary. For example, Sam Tsoutsouvas is an imposing God and an amusingly unable to die Lazarus. Michael Stuhlbarg is equally impressive as the devilish Lucifer of the Adam and Eve story, the dutiful Isaac of Abraham & Isaac; and as Jesus facing Pontius Pilate (John Rothman, who earlier portrays Abraham) and then a coarse band of crucifiers. Bill Buell provides comic relief as Noah and the Fool who comes to realize that Jesus does not want to be rescued. Unfortunately in the Noah's Arc segment the Buell and Jennifer Roszell (seen just a few segments back as Eve) as the great flood's survivors wife, nearly drown sitcom-ish humor that includes visual shtick such a large blue plastic cloth for the flood and yellow slickers.

The six familiar bible stories that make up the approximately 65-minute first act are well organized -- moving from the story of the Creation to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah's Flood, Abraham and Isaac and, finally, the Three Magi. However, the payoff of sitting through what is something of an elaborately staged Sunday School prelude comes in the second act with its more intriguing contemporary sources. The Raising of Lazarus by Italian Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo, in which we never see the miracle but only the spectators, worked particularly well and, despite an overlong monologue, so did his The Fool Between the Cross. Sandwiched between the two Fo segments, the Yugoslav political writer Borislay Pekic's tongue-in-cheek Miracle at Bethany makes a perfect filling. Mikhail Bulgahov's philosophical Pontus Pilate is also quite fine. The return to the York Cycle for the concluding Harrowing of Hell makes for a finale that feels like a church pageant but somehow falls short of giving a genuine sense of soul satisfying, redemptive theater.

While Mattie Uhlrich allowed God to be Adam and Eve's "dresser" she has smartly matched the set's somber pallette to outfit the ensemble, with Wall Street style suits and coats for God and his angels. Kevin Adams' lighting throughout is impeccable, as is Darron I. West's low-key sound design.

This is the first of two New York productions coming our way after premiering at Tim Robbins' Los Angeles Actors Gang Theater. Embedded, written and directed by Robbins himself, will begin previews late in February at the Public Theater with its original cast and creative team intact. To read our California critics reviews of Embedded go here . For more details about the stories of The Mysteries check out the LA review.

The Mysteries
From the York and Wakefield Cycles and texts by Mikhail Bulgakov, Dario Fo, Borislav Pakit and adapted by Tony Harrison
Directed by Brian Kulick
Cast: Bill Buell, Mario Campanaro, Michael Potts, Carmen Roman, John Rothman, Jennifer Roszell, Michael Stuhlbarg, Sam Tsoutsouvas, Chandler Williams.
Set Design: Mark Wendland
Costume Design: Mattie Ullrich
Lighting Design: Kevin Adams
Sound Design: Darron L. West
Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes, includes one intermission
Classic Stage Company 136 East 13th St. (3rd/ 4th Aves)212-279-4200
1/08/04 to 2/15/04; opening 1/22/04. Tue - Sat at 8pm; Sun at 3pm (with some variations) $35 - $50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 1/17 press performance

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