The Flea Theater's Bats perform an epic retelling of the greatest story ever told.
"Hi, I'm Colin. I'll be playing Jesus a little later. Can I get you something to drink?" Those were the words that greeted me as I entered the Flea Theater to see The Mysteries, the latest spectacular from director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar (Restoration Comedy). That kind of affable friendliness, alloyed with a rigorous commitment to storytelling, encapsulates this 5 ½-hour biblical journey. The Mysteries is breathtaking in its scope, covering 52 episodes of the Bible, from Lucifer's fall through Judgment Day. The result is an unforgettable theatrical revitalization of these stories, a radical reclamation that can be appreciated by believers and nonbelievers alike.
The Mysteries is based on medieval European mystery plays: tableaux-depicting episodes of the Bible for the benefit of a largely illiterate congregation of Christian believers. As craft guilds took responsibility for the plays (with each guild producing one), they were increasingly staged in the vernacular, with members of the community (rather than clergy) acting out the stories of Adam, Noah, John the Baptist, and Jesus Christ. This was community theater in the truest sense.
In that spirit, Iskandar has enlisted 48 playwrights from the New York theater community (including David Henry Hwang, Craig Lucas, and José Rivera) and The Bats (the Flea's endlessly energetic resident company) to tell this story. This is one of those rare and much-coveted experiences in which the cast rivals the audience in size, so the Bible quite literally envelops you within the confines of this intimate space.
The show takes place on a traverse stage, with the audience facing one another. A divide in the center of the seating forms a Gnostic cross that serves as the playing space, with a decaying halo of tinfoil suspended high over the center of the stage. Scenic designer Jason Sherwood has constructed two runways behind the audience seating, used primarily by angels who sing and occasionally interact with the audience from beyond the transparent plastic curtain that divides us from their heavenly plane.
Loren Shaw's costumes are DIY biblical: Every item looks readily available at H&M or American Apparel, but they've been styled and treated to smack of the Edith Head costumes in a DeMille epic. Jennifer Ahlfeld's makeup adds a punk-rock grittiness (heavy on the guyliner) that makes it appear as though some of the disciples have wandered over from the East Village. All of this adds to the let's-put-on-a-show spirit of the mystery plays.
Iskandar's structure most closely follows the York Cycle: an angelic chorus heaves and chants. Gabriel (Alice Allemano) is devoted to God, but Lucifer (Asia Kate Dillon) questions the motives of her creator. God (Matthew Jeffers) casts her down before creating Adam (Jaspal Binning) and Eve (Alesandra Nahodil), creatures he hopes will understand his pain. He quickly tires of humanity and disappears, leaving Gabriel to do his bidding with Cain (Alex Seife), Abel (Elijah Trichon), Noah (Peter Sansbury), and Abraham (Matthew Cox). He can't even be bothered to take a call from his only son, Jesus Christ (Colin Waitt), in the moments before the crucifixion. Judgment Day eventually comes, but who will actually pass judgment: God or Man? The Bats give emotionally (and sometimes literally) naked performances as they boldly illuminate this millennia-old tale.
As Lucifer, Dillon offers a seductive and compelling voice of dissent throughout the play. "The religion founded — haha — upon your existence will be held up to justify the slaughter of millions over hundreds and thousands of years," she tells Christ as he suffers upon the cross. Yet in a play that celebrates these stories as much as it questions them, her presence only serves to further enrich this comprehensive experience.
With the help of music director and composer David Dabbon, Iskandar has infused the entire evening with music and song: The Transfiguration scene (written by Billy Porter/Kirsten Greenidge) is stunningly beautiful. As a gospel choir sings, a bronze key on a red string (the promise of salvation) passes from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Jesus. A rabble-rousing scene in the temple of Jerusalem (written by CollaborationTown like an "Occupy" protest) accentuates Christ's radicalism. Following the Ascension, a giant hoedown of a production number ("All These Things That I've Done" by The Killers) captures the radical joy of early Christian evangelism as the Bats, many playing instruments, sing and dance around the audience. There are too many brilliant moments to mention them all. Iskandar has woven so much visual and aural stimuli into the story that you will never get bored.
Since the show is 5½ hours, in the first intermission the Bats treat you to an appropriately Middle Eastern dinner of falafel, hummus, and Israeli salad, with a baklava and Clementine dessert in the second. You'll be happy to break bread with this gutsy and likable cast. Communion has never been so much fun.