Most directors today wouldn’t touch a 15th-century passion play with a 20-foot crucifixion pole. But sitting in a Starbucks around the corner from his morning rehearsal, Brian Kulick is so excited about his production of The Mysteries that he seems to be devouring religious classics for breakfast. Clasping a collection of René Girard’s theoretical essays on ritual sacrifice, he launches into a breathless discussion of theology and medieval staging techniques. With his round face and spectacles, sweater-vest and boots, the garrulous middle-aged director looks like a burgher on intellectual overdrive.
The Mysteries, an evening of biblical narratives playing January 8 through February 15, will be the opening production in Kulick’s first season as Classic Stage Company’s new artistic director. Although Christian verse dramas haven’t been big at the box office in a long while, the “mystery cycles” were wildly popular in the 15th and 16th centuries. Each cycle included up to 48 short plays dramatizing miracles or martyrs, staged pageant-style on double-decker wagons pulled into public squares. Performances were spectacular and community driven: Local trade groups would choose an appropriate story to design and perform. The competition for most vivid staging could get ugly. Fifteenth-century records for the city of York’s festival show that the shipwrights built Noah’s ark, the bakers cooked up the Last Supper, and the butchers handled Christ’s mortification and burial. Touring all the wagon plays in sequence gave audiences an experience of human history from Creation to Judgment Day and a glimpse of the unified Christian cosmos; the lengthy event would sometimes conclude with a chilling apocalyptic finale at sundown.
These extravaganzas served up plenty of doctrine too, but Kulick believes the plays speak to contemporary questions of faith and doubt. To emphasize their immediacy, he’s dividing the evening in half. The first part consists of Old Testament stories from the York, Wakefield, and Chester Cycles, moving forward in scripture from Adam and Eve to the three magi. The second recounts New Testament narratives, such as the raising of Lazarus and the Crucifixion, in scenes adapted by Kulick from Mikhail Bulgakov, Dario Fo, and Serbian novelist Borislav Pekic.
“The medieval part of the evening becomes about God’s disappointment with man,” Kulick explains. “But the second, modern half is about man’s disappointment with God. It’s about the dialectics of disappointment, forcing man to take responsibility for his or her own actions. Both the medieval and modern authors ask us not to despair, either from a Christian or an existential point of view.”
The Mysteries may offer a preview of the seldom-explored repertory Kulick hopes to bring to CSC’s intimate 250-seat house on East 13th Street. “Even though it’s a small theater, I want it to dream big and feel big,” he says. “Everyone’s doing Shakespeare and Molière. You have Ibsen on Broadway and you have Ibsen downtown.” Kulick sees plenty of room for expansion. “We can go the next leap and start to look at Goethe,” he says. “Just as the Russians are able to effortlessly make Dostoyevsky theatrical, we should be able to do the same with Chaucer and things like that.”
For starters he has reorganized CSC’s season, including staged readings devoted to a single period of drama, hoping the explorations will lead to full productions in the future with an ensemble already steeped in the dramaturgy. (This fall’s series focused on non-Shakespearean Elizabethan plays, with each reading featuring big-name stage veterans like Ron Liebman, Frances McDormand, F. Murray Abraham, and John Turturro.) Next the company will mount Mac Wellman’s Antigone (staged by choreographer Annie-B Parson and director Paul Lazar, with music by Cynthia Hopkins). Best known for directing Shakespeare in Central Park while working as an artistic associate at the New York Shakespeare Festival, Kulick wants to make actors more central to his institution, with regular collaborations generating artistic continuity. His CSC predecessor, Barry Edelstein, brought in film stars like Mira Sorvino and Uma Thurman. But Kulick hopes to emphasize theatrical ensemble acting; reflecting on the general trend, he calls celebrity-driven projects “ecologically the most dangerous thing that has happened to New York theater.” He adds, “It’s like a wildlife preserve that’s being destroyed.”
Back at the theater, a spirited cast pushes the set’s six long wooden tables together into a horizontal cross. With much hilarity, they tie down Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Christ. “It’s very strange to be in rehearsal saying things like, ‘OK, let’s go, we’ve only got 10 minutes to work on the crucifixion,’ ” Kulick comments, as the actors hoist Stuhlbarg aloft. The company begins to block a boisterous scene from Fo’s Mistero Buffo, in which workmen crucify Christ while arguing clownishly about how far apart the holes should be. Kulick sits enrapt on the straw-covered stage floor, giggling at Fo’s irreverent jokes. At that moment he looks like a master of revels whose faith can banish any doubts about resurrecting adventurous classical theater in New York.