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The Mysteries: The Flea Takes On The Bible, Epically, Irreverently

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Ed Iskandar talked with God. Then it was Lucifer’s turn. Now he was addressing Adam and Eve.

“The audience has just paid $50 to watch the Bible, so bite the fuck out of the apple and eat it, eat it all” he said dramatically to them, emphasizing the epithet in his crisp British accent.

Iskandar was presiding over a rehearsal in his loft, which is located, aptly enough, in Hell’s Kitchen. He is directing “The Mysteries,” a six-hour work of epic theater about the greatest story ever told – the Bible – but told in a decidedly unorthodox way.

For the show, with performances April 3 to May 25th,  48 playwrights have contributed new short plays adapting Bible stories. David Henry Hwang (M Butterfly) has reworked the story of Cain and Abel. Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) has written a play about The Last Supper.  Craig Lucas (Prelude to a Kiss, Light on the Piazza) contributed two plays, one of them about the Crucifixion. Even Billy Porter, the Tony-winning star of Kinky Boots, is trying his hand at playwriting.

Right now, Iskandar was rehearsing the plays from Act I, including Madeleine George’s 10-minute piece about the Fall of Man, which she gives the elaborate title,  “A Worm Walks Into A Garden or The Fall of Man, an experiment in motive and comedy.”  In it, Lucifer tells dumb jokes to Adam and Eve, as a way of seducing them. Adam finds them funny. Eve doesn’t.

“You’re missing a crucial part of your anatomy,” Lucifer says to Eve. “The funnybone.”

Lucifer is being played by Asia Kate Dillon (“I’m delighted Lucifer is a woman,” Iskandar said later. “There are so few women characters in the Bible.”)

Dillon was writhing and entwining herself around Eve.  Suddenly Chase Brock, the show’s choreographer, got down on the floor and started to writhe on the floor along with Lucifer. Brock had researched the earthworm, and showed some pictures of earthworms to Dillon on his laptop to suggest other moves she could make.

Brock is delighted to be part of “The Mysteries” and its many challenges.

“The parting of the Red Sea, the Flood  – enormous iconic events in a small space, “ said Brock, who has some practice in theatrical upheaval: One of his previous choreography gigs was on “Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark.”

In one way, “The Mysteries” is certainly theater on an enormous scale. It features a cast of more than 50, most playing multiple roles.  Seventeen associate or assistant directors are assisting Ed Iskandar.  But it is being performed from April 3rd to May 25th at The Flea, an Off-Off Broadway theater whose main stage contains just 74 seats.  Jim Simpson and his wife Sigourney Weaver founded The Flea 18 years ago with the motto, raising a joyful hell in a small space.” Of the many shows the theater has done, “The Mysteries,” its most ambitious work to date, may be taking the slogan most literally.

 The Latest in Marathon Theater

“The Mysteries” continues a tradition of marathon theater that has experienced something of a resurgence lately in New York. Recent epic-length works for the stage include “Gatz,” the Elevator Repair Service performance of the verbatim text of The Great Gatsby over six and a half hours;  “The Great Game: Afghanistan,” the Tricycle Theatre Company’s presentation of nineteen works of theater over eleven hours; Mike Daisey’s 29-part “All The Faces of the Moon,” performed over 29 successive nights; and “These Seven Sicknesses,” playwright Sean Graney’s adaptation of all seven surviving plays by Sophocles presented in a single evening.

Like “The Mysteries,” “These Seven Sicknesses” was performed at The Flea, and it was directed by Ed Iskandar – his first gig at The Flea.  Iskandar punctuated the Sophocles plays with interludes for dinner and dessert, served at the theater by members of the acting company.  To the director — inspired by the theater marathons of Ancient Greece, which took place at day-long festivals full of food and drink — these amenities were not just a convenience, but at the core of his interest in theater.

“I see theater as an act of service,” Iskandar says. “I’m very interested in long-form social engagement. The experience of going to the theater has to be revitalized as a social engagement, in my mind. “

The director’s idea about theater,  says Jim Simpson, the artistic director of The Flea, “is really out there.  It’s not commercial at all. It’s not like the movies where the lights go out, and ‘please be quiet.’ He sees the esthetic experience as drawing people together, forming a relationship between the audience and the performers.”

Iskandar followed the success of “These Seven Sicknesses” with “Restoration Comedy,” Amy Freed’s play based on 17th century theater that the director turned into a “marathon bacchanalia” (in the words of one critic.)  Lasting a mere three and a half hours this time, the show interlaced the onstage action with actors dressed as fops and tarts serving cocktails before the show,  singing Mariah Carey songs as part of a variety act during intermission,  and inviting the theatergoers onstage after the play for a dance party.

Shortly afterward, The Flea’s producing director Carol Ostrow called Iskandar up with a new idea. “She wanted a Christmas show with multiple playwrights.” He had a different idea.

 Iskandar: From Buddhism to The Bassoon to The Bible

Iskandar was born into a Buddhist family in Indonesia.  When he was just seven years old, he won a music scholarship and was shipped off to England to study piano and bassoon. As a condition of his scholarship, he played in a church, attending chapel service three times a day. By the time he was a teenager he had fallen in love with theater – “theater offered me a great community” – and it was then that he discovered the series of 48 medieval English plays known as the York Mystery plays, based on the Bible, which were performed at festivals in the English city of York beginning in the 12th century.

When they were created, Iskandar says, “the principal aim was not dramatic coherence or dramaturgical excitement, but instruction.” Still, he considers them “the literary bridge between the Greeks and Shakespeare.” After Carol Ostrow’s phone call,  Iskandar, now 31, decided to adapt the York Mystery plays for what he believes is their first professional production in the United States.

“This is an opportunity for some 50 playwrights to explore the salvation of mankind, and Christianity as mythology, and to have a conversation about faith in America today.”

Iskandar enlisted Jill Rafson, the literary director of Roundabout Theatre, as his dramaturg, and the two of them  put together a list of American playwrights “we’ve been excited about,” which grew to 500. To whittle it down, they focused on having diversity in everything but geography; they wanted New York-based playwrights, in order to involve them as much as possible in the process.

They wrote a synopsis of every one of the York plays, which  go from creation to the Last Judgment, and commissioned each of the playwrights they chose to adapt one into a play of one to ten minutes long.

The playwrights were free to adapt the original plays any way they thought appropriate.

Jesus As A Puppet, the Virgin Mary as a Valley Girl

In The Building of the Ark by Trista Baldwin, Noah delivers foul-mouthed rant against human behavior that’s caused climate change

The Moses Story by Ann Marie Healy is told from the point of view of Pharoah’s daughter Vanessa.

Jesus is a 12-year-old prodigy (played by a puppet) In Doctors in the Temple by Erin Courtney.

Pontius Pilate is a Hollywood-style sheriff from the Old West in The Conspiracy by Yussef El Guindi.

Mary – who appears in more of the plays than any other character —   is a Valley Girl that a matchmaker is setting up with Joseph in Joseph’s Troubles About Mary by Kate Gersten; a pregnant teen who tells a doctor she wants to graduate in “The Annunciation”  by Jordan Harrison; and a resident of a nursing home in The Death of Mary by Lillian Groag and Beth Blickers.

In Jorge Ignacio Cortinas’s “Expulsion,”  Adam and Eve are interrogated by two guards who are immigration agents or Customs officials. It’s a play for which the director has a particular affinity, as an immigrant who came to the United States to study at Stanford when he was 18, and says he is routinely detained at the airport on return flights from abroad. “Jorge grew up with Cuban parents in Miami; his whole childhood was talking about a place they couldn’t get in,” Iskandar told the cast during rehearsal. “It’s a beautiful play: You never relinquish the hope that you’ll get back to Eden.”

To cast “The Mysteries,” the creative team relied on the Bats, the mostly young unpaid actors who form the resident company of the Flea, but they also held auditions to recruit new members into the company for some of the principal roles.

God, Short and Flawed

For God, Iskandar cast Matthew Jeffers, a recent college graduate who calls himself a small-stature actor – he is 4’2” tall.

“Being cast as God was a good first step for me,” Jeffers said.  “So many of us have these preconceived notions of what God looks like and sounds like (deep voice, long gray beard etc). At least that’s what our pop culture has portrayed Him as. What Ed and the playwrights are doing is completely turning those ideas on its head. In this show, God is not this omnipresent, benevolent being. He’s deeply emotional, flawed, and insecure.”

He makes his first of many appearances in The Mysteries in “The Eighth Day (Creation Hymn)” by Jason Williamson, painfully facing Chaos when the angel Gabriel interrupts

Gabriel: God

God: Don’t take My name in vain

Gabriel: I was literally addressing You

God: Do I look like I want to be addressed?

Gabriel: No

God:Then it was in vain.

 

After He creates Day and Night, Gabriel asks Him

 

Gabriel: What’s up for day number two?

God: Oh, you know…getting rid of Chaos

Gabriel: All of it?

 As any theater-maker knows: No, not all of it.

“This is a literal act of creation,”  Ed Sylvanus Iskandar told the cast after rehearsing the play. He could have been talking about their ambitious theater piece on which they were all collaborating, but he merely meant the Universe.

 

Photographs by Jonathan Hollingsworth
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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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