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Michael Potts and Mario Campanaro
in The Mysteries
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
The Bible contains some of the most dramatic stories in all of literature but, too often, they're reduced to easily digestible morality tales that leave no room for skepticism. Classic Stage Company's latest production takes a different approach: The Mysteries is both stylish and irreverent, spiritual without being dogmatic, as CSC's new artistic director Brian Kulick presents a vibrantly theatrical take on some of the most well known biblical stories. Although the play draws from several different texts by writers from the 12th through 21st centuries, the overall flow of the piece is quite smooth and the production coheres into something much greater than the sum of its parts.

The first act is built on Tony Harrison's adaptations of medieval cycle plays -- primarily the York and Wakefield Cycles, although it also includes a song from the Chester Cycle that takes the chronological narrative up through the birth of Jesus. Historically, the Cycle plays served the important function of bringing biblical stories out of the church and to the common people. Rather than stodgy, overly reverential tales, they were often broadly farcical and even saucy. That aesthetic is preserved here: Harrison utilizes swear words such as "arse" and Kulick's directing choices include the use of full-frontal nudity in the Adam and Eve sequence. This is not to say that the Garden of Eden tale is overly sexualized; in fact, sex is comically avoided by Adam (Chandler Williams), who calls Eve (Jennifer Roszell) "fellow" and treats her more like a buddy than a wife.

Act II is comprised of 20th century takes on New Testament stories by writers Dario Fo, Borislav Pekic, and Mikhail Bulgakov. While the first act stories are more or less straight adaptations of biblical tales, the second act's offerings are more cynical and critical of church doctrine while still remaining open to the idea of spirituality.

Although the nine-person acting ensemble is uneven, Michael Stuhlbarg impresses in a number of different roles including an impish Lucifer, a sweetly innocent Isaac, and a quietly effective Jesus. He is the center of the production's most moving tale, "Pontius Pilate," adapted from a chapter in Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita. The scene is a dialogue between Pilate (John Rothman) -- called "hegemon" in the text, a reference to his position as a Roman procurator -- and Jesus (who's referred to as Yeshua) when the latter is brought to Pilate for judgment.

Stuhlbarg is mesmerizing and completely convincing as an all-too human prisoner who wants nothing more than to escape torture and punishment but who is nevertheless possessed of acute powers of observation and a knack for candidly telling the truth when a bit of discretion would be more beneficial to him. There are also hints at greater powers within Yeshua, although the character himself protests that many of the stories about him are grossly exaggerated and even willfully invented by others. An extended sequence where Pilate and his prisoner regard each other silently is oddly disturbing; it leaves both Pilate and the audience wondering about the divinity that this man may or may not possess.

Disturbing in an entirely different manner is the casting of Michael Potts -- the production's only African American actor -- in the roles of Cain, the first murderer, and Hamri, a servant. Although I am generally in favor of color-blind casting, the roles given to Potts seem overly loaded in terms of racial signification. That said, the actor is quite funny as the irreverent Cain, although his switch to a darker tone when he murders his brother is done too quickly and without adequate transition. As Hamri, Lazarus's loyal servant in Pekic's "Miracle at Bethany," Potts is amusing enough but indulges in a broadly sketched characterization that fails to make a lasting impression.

Other actors variously shine or fail to shine in their multiple roles. Mario Campanaro is hilariously effective as an opportunistic gravedigger who charges entrance fees and hawks sardines to spectators attending the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead (the scene is taken from Dario Fo's Mistero Buffo); on the other hand, his portrayals of Abel and the angel Gabriel are rather bland. Jennifer Roszell does a fine job as Eve, yet as Noah's wife she relies too heavily on high-pitched shrieking; that section of the play is meant to be farcical but Roszell definitely overdoes it. A similar problem besets Bill Buell in his second-act role of The Fool in Dario Fo's "The Fool Beneath the Cross" (also from Mistero Buffo). This is especially disappointing in that the piece is so well written and thought provoking; Buell's fool shouts at Jesus in a loud, shrill tone that ultimately distracts from the character's otherwise reasonable arguments. Still, the scene is not a total loss because Stuhlbarg's Jesus is pitch-perfect here, even without speaking any lines. The actor's eyes are marvelously expressive and the tortured yet beatific look on his face speaks volumes.

Bill Buell, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Michael Potts in The Mysteries
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Mark Wendland's simple yet effective set design is comprised of long rectangular tables that are reconfigured to establish different locales. With the audience seated on three sides of the stage, Kulick constantly shifts the stage picture to allow the action to be viewed from multiple angles. A few other set pieces are utilized as needed; for example, a tree hangs upside down from the ceiling at the play's opening and swiftly becomes the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

The set is primarily rendered in muted earth tones, as are most of Mattie Ullrich's costumes with the exception of some bright yellow raincoats used in the Noah's Ark sequence. Also, the angels are dressed in somber black overcoats and scarves. Ullrich does not make any attempt at a period look; while several of the costumes are quite contemporary, they manage to convey something of a timeless quality. Kevin Adams's lighting design is also effective, helping to establish the tone and mood of each scene without attracting undue attention to itself.

The Mysteries is briskly paced, particularly in the first act. Act II is more varied in tempo, particularly during the aforementioned "Pontius Pilate" scene, which is slowed down to create a more contemplative mood. The two halves of the evening work well in tandem, provoking both thought and laughter as the piece grapples with issues of religion and spirituality.

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