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April 22, 2014
Review: The Mysteries
Colin Waitt and cast in "The Mysteries". Photo by Hunter Canning.

It’s epic. It’s bold. It’s lavish and exuberant. It’s a party on stage, it’s a red hot mess. It’s "The Mysteries". Ed Sylvanus Iskandar and The Flea Theater have somehow pulled off the unimaginable: the salvation of humanity in a single evening. Retelling the entire biblical saga in a single evening through the minds of 48 playwrights, "The Mysteries" is the latest production to storm the Flea.

Entering Iskandar’s theater is a holy experience in the best sense of the word: the actors are there to greet you, to invite you into their world. It is clear that we are going to form a communion of the most exceptional kind, one in which audience and actor are brought together by the ritual of performance. It is a true immersion: a giant gnostic cross floats above the space; surrounding the audience is a walkway filled with angels, who flood the space with heavenly music as the Bible plays out before your eyes. The actors serve us food at the various intermissions, heightening the sense of communion and epic celebration.

It is difficult to talk about "The Mysteries" as a single production rather than as a collection of 52 individual plays, each of which could use a review of its own. Iskandar has done a remarkable job of uniting so many different visions into some semblance of cohesion. However, each play seems to have a different idea of what "The Mysteries" actually is: some are deeply philosophical, others whimsical, some are intimate, others spectacular. And while each has its merits, over the course of nearly six hours, the process becomes a tad exhausting. At its strongest, the production grants the Bible a brutal contemporaneity: such is the case with Kimber Lee’s ‘The Shepherds’ and Lloyd Suh’s ‘The Next Supper’. At its weakest, the production departs into deeply cerebral meditations on the meaning of life or moments of metatheatricality that feel trite and contrived.

Costuming is perhaps the greatest victim of this fragmentary treatment. Confronted with 48 different ideas of the Bible, Lauren Shaw has had the difficult task of making it all fit together. Sometimes it feels like your classic swords and sandals epic, sometimes it is "Jesus Christ Superstar", sometimes it is the dregs of an H&M runway show. Make-up, too, seems to fluctuate between a David Bowie concert and a night out in Brooklyn.

Yet there are undoubtedly moments of brilliance. Anything involving Billy Porter is utterly enrapturing. Mr. Iskandar also manages to find both deep sentiment and epic stage images of sublime beauty: the Transfiguration in particular is completely orgasmic, the Crucifixion wonderfully staged. There is also a constant thread of humor which serves to lift the production: Nick Jones’ ‘Fruitful and Begettin’ and Max Posner’s ‘The Woman Taken In Adultery’ had the audience in stitches.

Allison Buck in "The Mysteries". Photo by Hunter Canning.
Allison Buck in "The Mysteries". Photo by Hunter Canning.

Other moments feel excessive and jarring: everyone constantly making out is neither shocking nor particularly enlightening. Jesus’ three-way relationship with Judas and Mary Magdalene is a fascinating idea yet ultimately underdeveloped and unexplained. Entering the sixth hour of the production, I found myself remembering why most plays are only two hours long. Mr. Iskandar’s brilliance may have been better served focusing on a single Biblical story and its resonance in the contemporary age. The second act was by far the most successful: humanizing the figure of the Christ is Mr. Iskandar’s true crowning achievement.

Yet the true stars of this heavenly space are the Bats, who undoubtedly flew more like angels than creatures of the night. Their exuberance and constant, indefatigable energy is what truly kept this production thrillingly afloat. Alice Allemano was the true guardian, the guiding angel of this show. As Gabriel, the rich hue of her voice seemed to reverberate from some primal place: it was that of a creature at once ethereal and profoundly human. Asia Dillon as Lucifer brought the precise mixture of demonic delight and fragility necessary for such an adaptation: watching her performance was like looking at a raw cut in the bowels of the earth, brimming with fire and unimaginable sadness. And of course, then there was Colin. Mr. Waitt crossed the stage like the messiah on the turbulent waves of the theatrical ocean: at once above and beyond all earthly boundaries yet still utterly one with the ensemble. His Jesus is a Christ of our era: prophetic, wise, indelibly sexy, endlessly relatable and gently superior.

Despite its flaws, "The Mysteries" is an entirely worthwhile experience. It is at the end of the day a wonderful postmodern pastiche, bringing together a deluge of cultural references and religious symbolism in an exuberant collage of Christianity in the contemporary era, buoyed by the energy of a truly wonderful cast and a passionate creative team.

Through May 25 at The Flea.

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Written by: Oscar Lopez
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