Each of these three plays from 59E59 Theater’s “East to Edinburgh Goes Virtual 2021,” a festival running through July 25, takes its inspiration from a familiar source — “Testament” brilliantly from the Bible, “Static” enigmatically from “Peter Pan,” “Democracy Sucks” cheekily from “Plato’s Republic.”
How would a modern-day Isaac feel about his father Abraham agreeing to sacrifice him? We find out in “Testament,” a play by Tristan Bernays that reimagines Isaac (a terrific Doron Jépaul Mitchell) and three other Biblical characters as members of a support group sitting in chairs in a circle, led by a group leader (Desireé Rodriguez) who listens sympathetically and then comments by singing gospel music and the blues.
This 21st century American retelling of three Biblical stories is more than just clever. The hour-long play is something of a revelation, in more ways than one: It’s thought-provoking, but also, as directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson and persuasively acted by a low-key cast, it offers a series of surprises – especially if you don’t read the program ahead of time.
Take the second story. Two sisters with hillbilly accents introduce themselves. Mary (Jessica Giannone) and Jane (Cori Hundt) tell the others in the circle about the town they grew up in, which was the kind of place that, if it weren’t landlocked, would be overrun with sailors, and of their father whose efforts at being respectable resulted in clashes with town officials. He is forced to flee.
Mary (Giannone) He grabs us and starts running
Jane (Hundt) And then I say, where’s Mama
Mary: And we look back – she ain’t moving
Jane: Daddy’s yelling at her to come on
Mary: She’s just standing there terrified like, like she’s turned to stone or something
Jane: And then out of nowhere a car just comes and plows through that crowd and it hits her and she goes down and crumbles like…dust or something,,,:
Or…a pillar of salt. Lot’s wife! These are Lot’s daughters! And if you know your Genesis — in which Lot fled the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and was impregnated by his daughters – you’ll realize that the story Mary and Jane go on to tell is (as the website says) “recommended for ages 15+.”
As in the tale of Lot’s daughters, the third story doesn’t precisely track what Bible-readers know. Biko Eisen-Martin portrays a prisoner identified in the program as “Impenitent Thief on the Cross, Anthony,” who resents the celebrity inmate in the next cell. The playwright adds a modern-day narrative that details the combination of desperation and bad luck that landed him on Death Row.
“Static” is a 45-minute show that intersperses a play written and performed by Conor Kelly O’Brien with a concert of related songs composed and performed by Daniel Amedee. It is ostensibly about a road trip to New Orleans that the narrator, one Matthew Riley, took with his dying father James. But the narrative isn’t so straightforward, because the narrator organizes his tale according to the chapter titles of J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan.” So, for example, the second chapter of “Peter Pan” is entitled The Shadow. The narrator uses the title to talk about a different “shadow” – his father’s dementia.
Why use “Peter Pan” this way? We’re told from the get-go that his father used to read the children’s book to little Matty almost every night. That’s before his father became more or less an absent member of the family, disappearing for months at a time, starting when Matty was ten. “I am telling this story because I no longer want to hate my father. I try to remember he really did love me…because I realized a long time ago that we don’t get to dictate how we want to be loved.”
“Static” was performed on stage in 2019 at both the East to Edinburgh Festival and Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a film of which is what’s being streamed online. This winds up being unfortunate, because the quality of the video is so poor – the lighting results in such a muddle – that it ironically creates a distracting static all its own, making it even more challenging to work one’s way through the overcomplicated structure to get to the heart of this heartfelt story.
Monica Bauer’s 35-minute comic monologue stars John Fico as an unhinged professor (think a gay academic Howard Beale) giving his last virtual lecture to his Political Philosophy 101 students about democracy, which is the same lecture he’s given every class this semester: “I’m not repeating myself because I lost it,” he tells his students, as he scarfs down one glass of white wine after another, “but because I found it.” He’s fairly certain this will get him fired. “My relationship with the dean would have made me bulletproof, since it’s no secret I married the dean many years ago. Unfortunately for me, I divorced the dean this past September, when I caught him enthusiastically boinking a visiting professor from Poland.”
“Democracy Sucks” is perhaps a tad too obvious in its effort to be nutty, but it did make me laugh, and completely won me over when Professor B actually delivers a lecture about Socrates’ and Plato’s antipathy towards democracy — one that is clear, informative and fascinating…no less so for his quoting the two Greek philosophers by using sock puppets.
Tickets to all nine shows of East to Edinburgh Goes Virtual 2021 are available for a total of $21. Each show is presented separately (not in a single reel.)